Fall River wants to revitalize its downtown. This group went to Cambridge for inspiration.

FALL RIVER — As the city eyes a transformation of its downtown, a group of state and local leaders are in the early stages of exploring the creation of a Business Improvement District that would enhance services and other programs along North and South Main streets.

The effort to form a BID is a partnership between MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative’s Fall River chapter, Fall River Redevelopment Authority, One SouthCoast Chamber, Viva Fall River and other economic development stakeholders in the city.

On Tuesday, Jim McKeag, who runs and oversees the Fall River TDI, a program meant to help with stimulating and creating better economic development opportunities in the city, led a group to Cambridge to learn about the highly successful Central Square Business Improvement District established in late 2019.

Central Square Business Improvement District Executive Director Luis Cotto leads a tour of the Cambridge neighborhood with Sarah Page, Fall River Redevelopment Authority's executive director and TDI's Jim McKeag.
Central Square Business Improvement District Executive Director Luis Cotto leads a tour of the Cambridge neighborhood with Sarah Page, Fall River Redevelopment Authority's executive director and TDI's Jim McKeag.

What is a Business Improvement District?

The BID is a private, often non-profit corporation, set up and maintained by property owners located in a designated district that establishes an improvement plan to the area, often supplementing city services.

If a BID designation is to be successful, it requires at least 60 percent approval by property owners in the identified district boundaries.

Targeted efforts are funded through a fee scale charged to property owners in the BID, and the management of it can take on different forms of either employing its own staff or contracting with service providers.

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Each BID under state law, is allowed to set its own fee schedule, which is usually paid and processed through the local government, said Sarah Page, executive director of the Fall River RDA.

Fall River delegation exploring possibly bringing a business improvement district to the city's downtown.
Fall River delegation exploring possibly bringing a business improvement district to the city's downtown.

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Taunton's BID started in 2010

It’s not a new concept and, in fact, BIDs have been around for over 50 years and established in communities across the country and beyond and governed in the Commonwealth by state statute.

In Massachusetts, there are nine designated BIDs including one in Taunton that was established in 2010. According to the Downtown Taunton website, members pay an annual fee equal to .5% of their assessed property value to fund the BID operations.

Aspects of the Taunton Business Improvement District include maintenance services like daily sidewalk cleaning, storefront window washing, supplemental snow plowing, beautification projects, collaborative marketing initiatives and public safety enhancements.

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Arts and culture in Cambridge's BID

Other BIDS, like the one designated in Central Square in Cambridge, have an active arts and culture component and host events.

Through a partnership, they created Starlight, a performance and events venue built in the heart of the area’s Cultural District from a one-acre surface level parking lot at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020.

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During the visit with the Fall River BID delegation, one of Central Square’s BID founders and a board member, Michael Monestime, said the non-profit organization has sponsored 30 murals by local artists around the area.

A group from Fall River tours the outside venue, Starlight, created by the Business Improvement District group in Cambridge during the pandemic.
A group from Fall River tours the outside venue, Starlight, created by the Business Improvement District group in Cambridge during the pandemic.

They’ve been instrumental working with the city on a number of projects, including outdoor dining, and employ cleaning crews that work from dawn to dusk, community outreach workers and “ambassadors” who work with at-risk residents and connect them with social services.

The Cambridge-based BID now has an operating budget of $2.7 million, employs 20 workers and provides seven-day-a-week coverage, said Monestime.

Fall River's BID steering committee

Page said the Fall River BID steering committee has been meeting regularly and more stakeholders are joining. They are discussing the proposed boundaries for the Fall River BID.

It will include the Fall River TDI District, Page said, which is located in the heart of downtown from Anawan Street near Government Center to Union Street near Kennedy Park.

She said the steering committee has been discussing the section of North Main Street to the YMCA, and potentially, beyond.

“There are a lot of discussions about going out further, like are there other properties and owners that make sense to include in the BID,” said Page.

The steering committee, which has been working on the concept with Mayor Paul Coogan’s administration, has been collecting data to identify property ownership in the proposed BID, and is in the works of launching a public campaign.

“It is going to require a lot of meetings and really engaging with people to ideally get a larger number of owners than is required to get on board with this,” said Page.

MassWorks agreed to fund the fee for consultant Ann McFarland, who has been working with the steering committee.

Once the steering committee does get the required approval from business owners and identifies its mission, it will require City Council approval to be established.

Owner and government buy-in is key

“We had to bring together multiple stakeholders who normally don’t sit at the same table to bring praise to get this thing across the goal line,” said Monestine to the Fall River group.

It was a successful strategy and it was accomplished on a budget of approximately $234,000 after the Cambridge City Council voted unanimously to approve the Central Square BID.

Patrick Barrett, attorney, developer and Central Square property owner, supported and advocated for the creation of the BID from the beginning.

He said for every dollar he spends maintaining his properties, he sees a $10 dollar return due to the benefits he gets from the BID, as well as having a more powerful voice when it comes to government than as a single property owner.

Barrett said his support of the BID convinced other property owners to buy-in to the concept.

“I felt that if I had the confidence level, they would have more confidence,” said Barrett.

Luis Cotto, executive director of the Central Square BID, said it's not just about cleaning up the neighborhoods, but making connections in the community that benefit property owners.

“Everybody knows our team out there, and you build your team, your community will get to know them. The shopkeepers and business owners, they come out and talk to the team all the time,” said Cotto.

Fall River's take on the Cambridge tour

During the presentation, Fall River resident, businessman and property owner, Joseph Holdiman said he sees the relationship between the owners and the BID concept as “transactional."

Holdiman is the owner of the former Buffington Building on 10 Purchase St., as well as the Thyme Blossom café located there.

“Continuity is of huge importance to me,” said Holdiman.

When he purchased the property, the former owner had allowed signs in all five floors and in all the windows that made the building “look like a patchwork quilt, it was horrible.”

As he renewed leases, Holdiman said he prohibited tenants from putting signage in windows.

“All of a sudden it changed the building. In the first three years I owned the property, it went from 70 percent vacancy rate to having a waiting list, just by cleaning up the sidewalk, taking down the signage and creating continuity in the building,” said Holdiman, who recently joined the steering committee.

He said that each property owner is responsible for keeping sidewalks clean and clear of snow and ice, but not all do.

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“So as a BID, we’ll be able to keep those sidewalks clean and make our district clean,” said Holdiman. “And that’s going to lead to increased rents and increased occupancy.”

As the city is seeing unprecedented funding, especially American Rescue Plan Act funds, McKeag said the timing is now.

“We are in a time where we have resources in the community, whether it's through ARPA funds, whether it's through some downtown revitalization money... or whether it's through TDI,” said McKeag. “We’ve got some resources, but we have a limited time that those resources are going to be in the community.”

McKeag was referencing the $80 million in ARPA funding coming to the city and Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed $3.5 billion economic development bill that earmarked about $9.5 million to Fall River.

During a walking tour of the Central Square district, Michael Benevides, vice president of business development at Portugalia Marketplace said the concept is interesting, though he pointed out that the dynamics of Cambridge are different from Fall River.

“They have more pedestrian traffic we don’t have, and it creates a vibrancy that I think we lack,” said Benevides.

He said he’s been a fan of what Fall River TDI and McKeag have been trying to accomplish the past few years with economic development in the South Main Street area and he appreciates McKeag's efforts to bring in a Business Improvement District.

“I think we are creating a movement and we need to stick with it. You have to be really determined. It’s going to take a lot of time and getting a lot of buy-in,” said Benevides.

Jo C. Goode may be reached at Support local journalism and subscribe to The Herald News today!

This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Fall River considers a Business Improvement District in the downtown