New Bedford City Council puts ‘BID’ district on hold

New Bedford City Council puts ‘BID’ district on hold

Facing a room packed with people protesting a proposed downtown Business Improvement District, city councilors Monday night voted to take a breather to consider first principles: did project advocates follow the law to begin with in asking the council to consider it?

Acting as the Finance Committee, all 11 councilors agreed to postpone further public deliberations six weeks until city officials provide clear answers to fundamental questions that have surfaced since the current BID was proposed earlier this year. 

The BID plan advanced by many prominent local business people is to establish an organization to improve the appearance of downtown, stage events and promote the area more robustly to draw more visitors — all supported by annual fees paid by property owners. Ten BIDs are operating in Massachusetts and, according to one federal government report, about 1,000 such districts have been established across the country since the early 1970s.

To proponents, a BID is just what downtown New Bedford needs to bolster commerce and fill empty storefronts. Opponents — about 120 of whom rallied outside City Hall, and later streamed inside carrying protest signs and chanting “No BID Ever” — see powerful business people seizing control of downtown at the expense of less affluent business owners, lower-income and marginalized people. 

At-large Councilor Linda Morad, who chairs the Finance Committee, told the crowd that the hearing would continue on July 22. Between now and then, the council wants the city solicitor, assessor, city clerk and the council’s own lawyer to “recertify” aspects of the plan that are required by state law to have a BID considered by a city or town. 

She told the crowd that if the proposal does not pass muster, it will be “null and void, it will not be available for action” by the city.

For that reason, she said there was little point in a full public hearing and she was limiting the comment period only to those people who were sure they would not be able to return on July 22. Five people spoke, all against the BID. 

Bid opponent Rhonda Fazio, who owns the Interwoven gallery, said just before the meeting that opponents were geared up for a long night of outspoken protest. The public comment portion ran less than 30 minutes. 

While the BID is a private enterprise, it cannot go forward without the council’s approval of a special assessment district. To be considered for approval, BID advocates must meet guidelines spelled out in state law. 

The plan was said to have been reviewed by city officials before it first came before the council, but questions surfaced at the April session and since then. Some councilors, including Morad and At-large Councilor Shane Burgo, say their concerns have deepened.

After the meeting, Morad said the focus of the re-examination would be on whether BID proponents have met “thresholds” of support that state law says they must show from district property owners. 

Specifically, the law says BID organizers launch their project by filing a petition with the city clerk. The petition “shall include” the signatures of the owners of property that represents at least 51% percent of the assessed valuation of all property in the district, and signatures of 60% of property owners within the proposed BID.

The council has received some information, Morad said, but questions remain. Some answers “lead us to believe that some of the thresholds have not been met,” Morad said after the meeting. 

One leader of the BID effort, restaurateur Steve Silverstein, owner of The Black Whale and Cisco’s in New Bedford, and The Sail Loft in South Dartmouth, said after the session that he understands the step the council took.

He said he thought the situation was “appropriately handled given the circumstance. There’s a legal question that needs to be answered.” 

Jenny Newman-Arruda, a BID opposition organizer who owns TL6 The Gallery on William Street, said she appreciated that certain councilors were seriously considering questions that had been raised about the project. Nonetheless, she said she was disappointed that she’d devoted so much energy to mustering opponents to this meeting only to have the hearing cut short.

Erik Andrade, a social activist and BID opponent, said “the fact they’re going to review the numbers is important.”

Absent from the session was Marco LiMandri, who has been acting as an unpaid consultant on the current effort and supporting a downtown BID in New Bedford off and on since 2014. He has nearly 30 years of experience creating and consulting on BIDs across the country with his company, New City America, based in San Diego, where he lives. 

Silverstein said before the meeting that LiMandri had become a target for BID opponents, and has withdrawn permanently from his consulting role. Jay Lanagan, another prominent New Bedford restaurateur supporting the BID, said it’s possible the group leading the effort might have to hire a paid consultant. 

BID opponents have raised questions about LiMandri based in part on an investigation of his business activities in San Diego nearly 20 years ago. Investigators recommended criminal charges against him and others, but he was never charged. 

Although LiMandri owns a house and a commercial property in New Bedford, the fact that he’s from California has raised an outcry about the influence of “outsiders” in the BID project. 

Silverstein lamented the tenor of the controversy, saying he hoped the issue could be resolved in a more “harmonious” way. “This angst and this negative energy is not productive,” he said.

Opponents link the BID plan with an array of potential social harms. They envision powerful interests seizing control of downtown, pushing out less affluent business owners with more costly leases, curbing access to public space and displacing low and moderate income people by causing rents to rise in neighborhoods near downtown.

Zu Holland, a BID opponent who spoke outside City Hall, went further. She carried a sign that connected the BID to events in the Middle East: “Gentrification Displacement Is Occupation/Free New Bedford/Palestine.”

Andrade carried a sign referring to the mayor, who supports the BID, as “Jon ‘Gentrification’ Mitchell,” followed by: “Hates/The working poor/Unhoused people/Black People/LGBTQIA+People/Historic Residents/Small Business.”

The rally took on an Occupy Wall Street feeling with such signs as “People Over Corporations” and a giant inflatable cigar-smoking fat cat — presented outside City Hall by the Southeastern Massachusetts Labor Council — grasping a green bag of money in its left paw and a little man labeled “Local Worker” in its right. 

In the end, though, an effective opposition statement came quietly from an affluent commercial property owner who opposes the BID: Rose Miller, who with her husband Rick Miller owns 26 commercial properties, including several downtown. She spent hours in her office last month analyzing the BID proposal using city property records. 

Her analysis showed that — depending on one’s reading of state law — BID proponents may have significantly undercounted smaller property owners whose support they need to put the proposal to the council. She presented that information to Morad, who passed questions to the council’s lawyer. 

In an email last month, LiMandri did not question Miller’s numbers, but he said the BID was legal. He said BID proponents left out of their petitions owners whose properties are too small to make the cut for mandatory annual fees. That decision was made by the BID steering committee and is consistent with the law, he said. 

Miller’s analysis lent weight to questions raised at the April hearing, including by Councilor Burgo, who opposes the BID. He wondered why nonprofit organizations were included in the petitions, as they could choose not to pay the annual fee.

He called the postponement for the re-examination a “great outcome, and I think it’s going to produce an amazing result. I think the numbers were off.”

Email Arthur Hirsch at [email protected]

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