By: Eric B. Larson
The Downtown Detroit Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) is a public organization that creates a clean, safe and vibrant Downtown through services provided to property owners, businesses, residents and employees. The BIZ is wholly funded through a special assessment paid by owners of assessable property within the 1.2-square-mile BIZ boundaries. It works in collaboration with the Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP) and is governed by a volunteer Board of Directors.
As we begin efforts to launch the BIZ renewal campaign, DDP CEO Eric Larson asked Gina Cavaliere, BIZ director and DDP’s chief community impact officer, to join him for a discussion on the BIZ and its importance to Downtown Detroit.
Eric: Gina, give us the elevator pitch. How does the BIZ create value for the Downtown and its businesses?
Gina: The BIZ was formed in 2014 by Downtown property owners who collectively agreed to invest in Downtown Detroit. The goal was – and still is — to deliver exceptional public spaces and protect the investments made in individual properties while enhancing property values and the Downtown experience. We do this through programs that maintain public spaces, improve safety and support businesses, residents and visitors.
Eric: Is the BIZ unique to Downtown Detroit or is it a best practice we see across the country?
Gina: More than 1,500 business improvement districts exist worldwide. This type of program is absolutely a best practice. It demonstrates the positive synergies realized when a critical mass of property owners commits to a shared vision to create and maintain a vibrant community.
Eric: What challenges would Downtown Detroit face without the BIZ?
Gina: Without the BIZ, the environment that the community has come to enjoy would be immediately impacted. Property owners fund the BIZ to provide services above and beyond what the city is obligated and able to provide. The baseline for cleanliness, landscape maintenance, business support and engagement, hospitality and other services in public areas would be compromised as unfunded services would be discontinued, threatening property values and the incredible work we’ve witnessed to date.
Eric: What are the BIZ’s priorities, both short-term and long-term?
Gina: The BIZ’s foundational goal of delivering and maintaining a Downtown Detroit that is clean, safe and welcoming to everyone remains the highest priority. Short-term, the BIZ is closely monitoring and managing the impact of the pandemic. Two substantial issues the BIZ is working to mitigate are the increasing number of people experiencing homelessness and mental health challenges and a shortage of Downtown frontline workers for our restaurants, retailers and other businesses. The BIZ is piloting a Safety Outreach Program featuring a team consisting of Ambassadors who receive enhanced safety and mental health training and a social worker who is connecting Downtown patrons in need with the appropriate social services. The BIZ hosts job fairs for the workforce shortage to connect employers with job seekers. Both are good examples of how the BIZ innovates to meet the community’s changing needs while remaining focused on the priorities defined in the BIZ Plan that assessed property owners approved.
Eric: The Ambassador Program is a signature program of the BIZ. What makes it so special?
Gina: The BIZ Ambassadors provide the community with a direct look at the BIZ investment. Ambassadors are trained in hospitality, safety and mental health awareness and are easily identifiable with their bright yellow shirts. Ambassadors sweep sidewalks, empty trash cans and power wash sidewalks, and they are Downtown’s expert concierges, providing hospitality services to workers, residents and visitors. With a friendly smile, they provide directions and restaurant recommendations, check on the well-being of unsheltered individuals, remove graffiti, tidy scooters and clear snow from ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) ramps and bus shelters and so much more. We receive accolades about the Ambassador team from all sorts of Downtown patrons, including first-time visitors and long-time Detroit residents. Their feedback is consistent: the ambassadors’ pride is inspirational and their work greatly enhances the overall Downtown experience.
Eric: What’s one thing you want to tell people about the BIZ that they may not know?
Gina: The BIZ Ambassadors work nearly 100,000 hours every year maintaining Downtown, and more than 90 percent of Ambassadors are Detroiters. We’re just about always hiring, so email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to become a Downtown Detroit BIZ Ambassador.
Eric: What do you see as the BIZ’s greatest opportunities and challenges?
Gina: The greatest challenges are also the areas of greatest opportunity to produce results. The BIZ has successfully increased our expectations for Downtown Detroit and is working hard to maintain the momentum in a constantly changing environment. The BIZ never stopped tending to Downtown during the pandemic. Today, Downtown visitation numbers are consistent with pre-pandemic levels, but the return to office is lagging. The work of the BIZ to keep Downtown clean, safe, and welcoming and ensure Downtown stakeholders are informed and connected is critical to Downtown’s recovery.
Eric: How much does it cost?
Gina: The BIZ is a special assessment that Downtown property owners voted to authorize. Each property owner’s amount is calculated using a formula based on each property’s size and value. Properties that are typically tax-exempt, like churches, schools and government buildings, are not subject to the BIZ assessment, and the assessment is capped at $150,000 per property. The median BIZ assessment is $1,506, and 72 percent of properties are assessed at $5,000 or less annually. The 558 assessed properties collectively contribute about $5 million to the BIZ.
The BIZ’s dedication to transparency, accountability and results is evidenced by 100 percent clean financial audits every year since inception. The BIZ board and staff have committed to cap overhead expenses at 20 percent of the budget, so 80 percent or more of revenue directly funds programs that help keep Downtown Detroit clean, safe and welcoming.
Eric: The BIZ’s 10th anniversary is approaching, meaning property owners need to renew the special assessment before 2024. What is the primary message to support renewal?
Gina: In 2014, Downtown property owners agreed to a special assessment to invest in the Downtown, and the BIZ was formed. This organization delivers on the approved investment, which will be up for renewal in 2024. This investment has provided enhanced services in public areas identified by the owners. It has, in part, impacted the stability of property values and the ability of the city to continue attracting businesses, residents and visitors from the region and around the world. It provides consistency and connectivity for the benefit of all Downtown stakeholders and should be reauthorized to continue the momentum for another term.
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