Broadway BIA on more stable ground

The end of 2002 was a Black Friday of sorts for the Broadway Business Improvement Association (BIA). Amid news of a large organizational debt, the city pulled the plug on the business group's fiscal arm, the Businesses of Broadway (BOB). The executive director's position was eliminated, new board members took over and the BIA faced an uncertain future.

The funding assessments were still collected but the city stepped in to make sure that existing contracts were fulfilled. For the most part, this meant the BIA paid for street cleaning services. Shirley Bishop Inc., a professional management company, was brought in to handle administrative details. But the BIA was in limbo. One former board member said at the time that the BIA was on life support.

Three years later the BIA remains viable. A large measure of stability has been restored and its relationship to the city has vastly improved. The organization runs largely on the backs of the few volunteers who have been able and willing to put in the time needed to bring the BIA back to health. For the last three years, Broadway Video's Paul Dwoskin was at the helm. This month, Michael Wells, owner of Bailey-Coy Books, took over as chair.

Wells, who has worked at Bailey/Coy since 1989, is working toward taking the BIA to the next step.

"Paul worked so hard to get the BIA back to fighting form," he said. "It took these last three years to restore the BIA's relationship with the city. There were a lot of bridges to be built."

All Broadway businesses - there are roughly 200 - are required to contribute to the BIA, with assessments based on sales. At the moment roughly 80 percent of the collected assessments go to street cleaning and graffiti removal, leaving a fairly small amount for other uses. The BIA spends money on flower baskets, as well as seasonal decorations. These uses are much more in line with the services the BIA was originally intended to provide. Ideally, Wells said, the group would focus its resources on marketing efforts and ways to improve Broadway's business climate.

As such, Wells said, the BIA is supportive of efforts now under way to create the Capitol Hill Improvement District, a property-owners group which would focus its energy on safety and maintenance issues, leaving the BIA to devote its energy to Broadway's business concerns.

"The BIA operates from a small advisory board. There's only so much a small group of volunteers can do. Most small business owners need to spend their time running their business," Wells said.

As has been recounted on numerous occasions to city officials, the Broadway business climate has been seen as in decline in recent years. From increased competition downtown, the great uncertainty over Sound Transit's light-rail project, safety issues related to drug use and homelessness as well as the tech bubble's burst, Broadway hasn't been the strong business district many remember.

But Wells said he does see positive changes in the Broadway dynamic over the last three years. As someone who has worked in the heart of Broadway for 16 years, he feels he has a pretty good sense of the street's relative health.

"I've been here long enough to know that these things are cyclical. I think people sense a positive momentum on the street. It feels better to me. I think the street is safer, and the development that will take place soon, such as the project at the Safeway site, will make a positive difference," he said.

As an organizational business advocate, he sees the BIA as having an important, even crucial, job in keeping the district's issues on the city's radar. Wells said that the BIA weighed in strongly on the Broadway rezone issue that culminated in last summer's Seattle City Council decision to raise the ceiling height along Broadway from 40 to 65 feet. It wasn't a universally popular stance; many people opposed the height increase. But, Wells said, by speaking out on the subject the BIA provided a voice to Broadway businesses, a voice he believes the city listened to and took seriously.

When the upzone was approved last summer the City Council earmarked $500,000 for future Broadway improvements. Where that money will go, and who will determine how it will be spent, are still two important unresolved questions. Wells said the BIA will remain heavily involved in the process.

"It will take time with the city to determine what is best for that money," he said. "And this is an area where the BIA fits in."

The roll of contacting city departments can be a large challenge for the BIA given that such work is done by so few volunteers. Wells said one goal for 2006 is to hire a full- or part-time staff person, much like the BIA used to have. Funding such a position will be a challenge. The notion that it could come from the $500,000 has been voiced and remains a possibility.

"The BIA simply needs some dedicated help. Small business owners need a professional advocate. Most owners simply don't have time. And it's easy for a small group of volunteers to get burned out," he said.

In the three years since the city pulled the plug on the BOB, a good deal of faith has been restored. The roughly $90,000 debt, largely the result of the Capitol Hill Street Fair, will be retired later in the year. And the city is taking the Broadway, and the BIA, more seriously. With the demise of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce 15 months ago, the BIA's role as a Capitol Hill business organization takes on greater prominence.

"The city pays attention to us now. After a good deal of public pressure, I think the city is paying much more attention to Broadway in general these days," Wells said.

While not one to dismiss the challenges Broadway faces, nor the economic realities that pose challenges to any small business, Wells is optimistic that Broadway is poised for greater things.

"I think positive change is imminent," Wells said. "We are positioned to become a healthy, thriving retail core. Broadway is an incredibly important street to the city, and it's health means a great deal to the neighborhood."

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at or 461-1308.

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