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Reinvigorating Communities

Jim Plaisted on the significance of BIDs

Aug. 28, 2013
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Off the Cuff sat down with Jim Plaisted, executive director of the East Town, Shorewood and Village of Wauwatosa Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), to learn more about BIDs and their significance in revitalizing commercial areas.


For the average reader, can you explain what a BID is?

BIDs are special assessment districts created under State Law 66.1109 in the mid-’80s. They allowed leaders to establish special assessment districts at the request of local commercial property owners. The process starts locally, where the commercial property owners get together, define an area that needs attention and petition the municipality to create it. Once created, it will collect property taxes over and above the existing entities that collect taxes. So, you’ll get your tax bill and it will say MMSD, the City of Milwaukee, MPS and here [on the East Side] it will say BID #20. Of all the BIDs that I’m aware of, nobody does it the same. But it’s very empowering that way, because once a BID is created, the municipality right away turns over direction to the local board of directors. It’s a special assessment district that really gives strong local control to the commercial district to execute a plan. The beauty of the state law is it doesn’t tell these business districts what they can do with this money, so anybody can shape it to their needs.


So why are they necessary?

They are necessary because it gives that local control and local initiative. Commercial districts to me are like sharks—if they are not moving forward, they’re going to die. So when commercial property owners have the wherewithal to look at each other and say “We have to do this and we have to fund this,” that shows what a strong statement they’re making for a commitment to the area and their investment. And they can literally shape their mission to whatever they want to do.


People don’t like taxes, but seem to be willing to impose a tax on themselves with BIDs. Why do you think that is?

What the BID mechanism can do is attack whatever issue you think is important to the vitality of your commercial district. BIDs are an enormous empowerment tool because they allow you to collect the money you need to promote the area. It’s a phenomenon growing worldwide. Wisconsin is up to about 80 BIDs and Milwaukee around 25-30.


Can you give us some success stories about the BIDs you direct?

Shorewood has been a great success in the sense that the BID has been a partner with the village on all the redevelopment and real estate energy that has happened in the last six to seven years. Working in cooperation with the Community Development Authority there, we’ve allocated more than $700,000 of façade improvement since 2004 and have executed six business incentive loans. Shorewood has just done a really strong job marketing itself to the greater community and I think that coordination with the Village of Shorewood has been a really strong and big success story for the BID.

What the Village of Wauwatosa did about three years ago is they got into a planning exercise. Current Mayor, Kathy Ehley, took the BID over as executive director in 2007 and just basically righted the ship, got everybody focused, got the right people on board and they did a plan. The plan is fantastic—it’s called the Strategic Development Plan for the Village of Wauwatosa—and it is now the roadmap that the city’s using. It’s just a really, really well done document, so they need to be applauded. That’s a big success story and it’s going to continue to grow that area in good ways.

And lastly, here on North Avenue, we’ve had so much on our plate since 1999-2000, when we started. We wanted a streetscape—we did that—and we wanted real estate development, including redevelopment of the Kenilworth building, and those things have happened to a great amount of success. North Avenue has done a really good job repositioning itself in the marketplace. When all around us became hip and trendy, no longer was North Avenue along Downer that kind of hip and trendy East Side. Now we had Milwaukee Street, the Third Ward and Brady Street reinventing themselves. We had competition. I think we’ve done a really good job with that, especially with our signature events. We’ve grown Summer Soulstice Music Festival into one of the best, I think, street festivals in the city. We’ve got our signature Tomato Romp, where we throw tomatoes at each other every September. And the East Side Green Market, which was actually a BID goal. We wanted to start a farmers market that was in Beans & Barley’s parking lot for 70 years before it was Beans & Barley. The board was like, “We want to bring it back,” and now we’re on our 12th or 13th year. That was important for this board, because we’re always fighting the perception that all we are is nightlife here on North Avenue. There’s more going on than just college kids at night. And that’s fine. That’s part of who we are, but we want to be an 18-hour district, not just a six-hour district at night.


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