Margaret Chin

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Last Wednesday, the City Council unanimously voted in favor of creating a Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID), a plan that has been in the works for decades. We spoke with Council Member Margaret Chin about how the BID will benefit the area, how much business owners will pay on an annual basis and why sanitation will make up the bulk of the BID's budget.

Let's begin with the basics. What is a BID and how does it work?

Margaret Chin: Property owners in the boundaries of BID all have to contribute an annual fee, or assessment, into the BID to make up its budget. This assessment is calculated on based on store frontage and assessed property value. That will be spent back into the same BID area. When the BID is formed, every single property owner has to pay this annual fee.

The Chinatown BID will provide sanitation services, help small businesses improve their storefronts and provide streetscape enhancements such as signage and way finding, graffiti and snow removal and holiday lighting?things to help improve the quality of life and the small business environment.

How long have local business and property owners and politicians like yourself been lobbying to create this BID? When did you become involved in this process?

Groups have been trying for decades-at least since the 1980s-to organize a BID for Chinatown. However, the early groups were funded by donations, which are not always reliable. One of the first groups was the Council for Cleaner Chinatown, which lasted for about 15 years but did not get to the stage where it was applying for a BID.

I got involved after 9/11. Chinatown business was hurt by 9/11 and as part of the rebuilding effort reports were done that showed that Chinatown needed a kind of organization to maintain cleanliness and do promotion for the area. In 2006, when the Chinatown Partnership, the sponsor of the BID was formed, I was a founding member of the Chinatown Partnership, which was billed as a "taste of a BID."

The organization received LMDC 9/11 recovery funds to start their Clean Streets Program and other initiatives to help rebuild the neighborhood. This showed what a BID could do for the community, from trash baskets-because they were overflowing then-to holiday lighting, but as you know the funding was used up by last year.

Do you feel the issue came to a vote now because the four-year, $5.4 million LMDC grant came to an end in 2010?

The effort to start organizing for the BID started about four years ago. In anticipation of the LMDC funding being used up, they formed a BID steering committee to look at what the options were. [For example] they looked at volunteer operational work, property owner contributions or a BID in Chinatown. I think back then there were [dozens] of business improvement districts and there were a lot of good examples of how BIDs help revitalize communities.

In the case of Chinatown, the recovery money granted to the Chinatown Partnership allowed the Partnership to execute a street and sidewalk sanitation program that transformed Chinatown. That money has since run out, so the natural next step is to apply for a BID.

The City Council vote on the BID came down to a 50-0 vote. Were you surprised by this landslide support for the BID?

Not really, mainly because when the vote came, a lot of council members already had a BID in their district-some had more than one. The council members are familiar with the functioning of a BID and they were very supportive to see one come to Chinatown. One council member said that she walked through Chinatown today and was happy to see that the community has gotten better in terms of cleanliness than what she had seen before.

I know that businesses will have varying assessments for the BID. Roughly how much will most businesses pay in annual fees for the BID?

On average, about 74 percent will pay under $1,000 a year. A lot of those are property owners who own office condos, like doctor's offices. Those office condos will pay about $200 a year. Property owners who own residential condos or tenement buildings where the whole building is residential, will pay $1 a year. Commercial property owners will pay on average $900 a year. Not-for-profits are exempt.

You have said that this BID will help revitalize Chinatown. How will it do this?

One of the most important things, aside from making the community cleaner and brighter, is that having a BID will connect Chinatown to other neighborhoods. A BID is very important in terms of promoting more visitors, and there is great opportunity with working with BIDs in the area. We will have more signage, or way finding, so visitors will know which way to turn from Chinatown to get to other neighborhoods or where Chinatown is situated.

The BID will also help advocate for small businesses in their dealings with city agencies, assist business owners with limited English capacity and foster small business development.

I read that the BID's projected budget for its first year is $1.3 million with around 78 percent of that allotted to sanitation needs? Why is the majority of the budget to be used for this and what will the rest of the budget be used for?

Every BID is designed in response to what that community's needs are. In Chinatown, it is overwhelming sanitation. If you remember the Chinatown of the past, it was unfortunately known for how dirty it was. The CPLDC [Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation] changed that and the BID will continue that mission.

Part [of the rest of the budget] is for administration and promotion. One thing is that a lot of people will find out different places to visit from the [BID] website. A website can do a lot more to promote individual businesses and tourist attractions. Putting [these businesses] on the Internet is a great asset to small businesses. One restaurant had a positive story in The New York Times, and now you can see lines outside of the restaurant. We want people to come here not just on the weekend, but also during the week and especially in the evenings.

Some business owners say the fees associated with the BID will be burdensome. What is your response to this?

The vast majority-74 percent of property owners-will be paying under $1,000 a year to the BID. I am confident that this will be the best-tax deductible-money they have ever spent.

I think the main thing is that we believe the future in Chinatown will be much brighter and more visitors will come. A lot of small businesses will be able to increase their business and attract more patrons, and the extra money will offset the fees that go into the BID.

Courtesy of Council Member Margaret Chin's office.

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