Downtown group near ditching new taxing district

Published 12:09 pm Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Members of the Downtown Partners advisory panel on Tuesday appeared ready to abandon the idea of creating a new taxing district downtown, though a fact-finding trip the group planned to take to Jackson to learn about that city’s Business Improvement District did not happen.

“I think we might be better served to assist Main Street as opposed to try to take on the duties they’ve already been handling for the past quarter century,” said Remy Massey.

Vicksburg Main Street is a chartered business development and promotions organization that operates, for the most part, on revenue from a property tax assessment added to downtown properties.

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A committee of Downtown Partners members, who met for the fourth time Tuesday since being formed by the mayor in mid-March, was to explore the BID option before the meeting. Chairman Blake Teller said the trip to Jackson — where the state’s only BID was created in 1996 — fell through on two occasions, but added it will likely take place over the next month.

Similar to the Vicksburg Main Street Program taxing district, a BID would generate funds for downtown development via an additional tax. An added dimension is that BID funds could be used to purchase derelict buildings and have them rehabbed for commercial or residential use.

Jackson has both Main Street and BID programs and Vicksburg-native and Jackson Downtown Partners President Ben Allen introduced the Downtown Partners to the BID concept. He said the BID in Jackson took three years to create. Jackson’s downtown partners group operates on about a $1 million budget to provide security in its district, as well as promote downtown residency and economic development.

“I just don’t think there’s room for any more taxes on the business owners who are already struggling downtown,” said Darryl Hollingsworth, who sat in on the meeting as an alternate for Chris Porter. “If the property owners want to do a BID, I suggest they up what they’re already paying to Main Street.”

Creating a BID in Vicksburg would require ballot approval by property owners in the proposed taxing district, approval by local municipal boards and bill passage at the state level by a local legislator. The Vicksburg Main Street Program has been for years working toward expanding its taxing district — which currently encompasses a 20-block radius between Mulberry, Jackson, Veto and Cherry streets — along Washington and Clay streets to Interstate 20.

After Downtown Partners members agreed the panel may be most efficient by acting as an advisory panel to the Main Street program, the conversation turned to safety downtown — in light of a May 22 mugging on Washington Street in which a 70-year-old tourist from Texas had her arm broken by two attackers. No arrests were made and police have identified no suspects.

“I’d like to see Main Street expand into security,” said David Day. “The perception has to be that it’s safe to go downtown, and right now that’s not the perception.”

Kim Hopkins, executive director of the Main Street program, said she’s discussed with Mayor Paul Winfield the possibility of hiring two security guards to work the downtown shopping, dining and residential areas. “We’re trying to decide the hours we’d need them…and the best way we can do it,” she said.

Mark Doyle said it should be up to the Vicksburg Police Department to provide additional patrols downtown. The department has added nearly 20 officers to its ranks since Chief Walter Armstrong took over 11 months ago. Doyle said the department may be persuaded to create a new beat specifically for downtown.

“I think that’s a waste of money,” he said after hearing about Main Street’s plans to hire security guards. “The police department ought to have a few cops who can patrol up and down the street on foot.”

Officers provide foot patrols through downtown during the holidays, but not during the rest of the year. The department last fall looked into the option of opening a downtown precinct, but the idea was dropped because the headquarters on Veto Street is only a few blocks from the heart of Washington Street. Two community resource officers who were hired last year to patrol downtown in mini-trucks do not work evenings, and many of the Downtown Partners who live and work downtown said they’re seldom seen during the day, either.

Winfield and several members of his staff dubbed “observers” of the Downtown Partners were all absent from the group’s meeting Tuesday. Some Downtown Partners members last month questioned why city officials were driving the panel’s conversation, but it is not clear if the “observers” made a consorted effort to give them more independence on Tuesday. Winfield said beforehand that he would not be able to attend Tuesday’s meeting due to a prior commitment.

Winfield announced his idea for the advisory panel on downtown development last fall after a series of public hearings concerning a downtown restaurant that wanted to expand to include a bar. He has charged the panel with finding ways to balance residential, commercial and entertainment interests along Washington Street. The group’s 15 members represent downtown eateries, bars, merchants and residents. They are scheduled to meet next on July 13.