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Business owners weigh in on business improvement districts

Are the fees worth it?
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Auburn business owners are reacting to controversy over the city’s business improvement districts, which arose among members at Monday night’s city council meeting. Businesses in Old Town and Downtown Auburn have been required in the past to pay business improvement district fees to get a business license, or face being sent to collections. Each area’s business association is charged with the responsibility of collecting and spending fees to promote their district. At Monday’s meeting, fee opponents said the money only benefits retail establishments and hurts the hospitality businesses. Those in the association said they hadn’t heard any complaints prior to Monday’s meeting. After hearing from businesses in favor of the association, and those against it, City Council said the group must establish a way to fairly represent all types of businesses and reassess their fee structure by May. The city is still clarifying how a business may opt out of paying the fees. Business owners in Downtown Auburn say they have mixed opinions on how that should be done though, while business owners in Old Town Auburn are waiting to see how the conflict between members within the association will pan out. “It totally should be voluntary like the chamber of commerce. I can understand both positions,” said Virgi Bondi, owner of Eggstra Special in Old Town Auburn. “I understand both sides.” Linda Robinson, president of the Old Town Business Association, said she doesn’t want to comment on the topic at this time. Over 100 Auburn businesses in collections City Manager Bob Richardson said of the 1,850 businesses in Auburn, 112 are in collections for non-payment. He said at one time there were about 300 businesses in collections total, but more have since paid the fees. “In Old Town we have about 108 businesses and about 20 in collections,” Richardson said. “Last year Old Town collected $33,245 in total BID fees.” What about the Downtown Auburn Business Association? Jim Bril, president of the Downtown Auburn Business Association and owner of Monkey Cat and Tres Pazzi, said he hasn’t heard any complaints from businesses in downtown, but said the participation at meetings is low. “They rarely complain and they don’t show up to meetings,” Bril said. “We had a board meeting/general meeting and there were six of us out 450. I would love any of the merchants to voice their opinion or come with things because we have the same eight or 10 of us active in the association.” Bril said the association aims to promote Auburn, even if not every business, including his restaurants, see a direct increase in their bottom line the day of an event. “Any time there is an event we look at as not necessarily same day sales, but, ‘Auburn is a great place. I’ll come back later,’” Bril said. “I think that is important that people understand you may make it up the following weekend. The idea is to get people from the 100-mile radius. People in Auburn will come on a Tuesday night.” He said he doesn’t agree with the idea of making membership in the association voluntary. “It wouldn’t make sense that I pay dues, but people on either side of me don’t pay and we are all benefitting,” Bril said. “Then nobody would do it and the whole system would fail.” Louis Granstrom, who owns The Chocolate Shoppe and Gift Emporium in Downtown Auburn, said although some of the events coordinated by the association benefit her shop, she isn’t always satisfied with the way retailers are represented. “It doesn’t have retail interests at heart,” Granstrom said. “So no, I don’t like paying it” She said some of the shops like hers may benefit more from a retail association. Despite some of her discontent, Granstrom says the people active in the association should be applauded for taking on the extra work that they do. Marilyn Welz, who owns Marilyn’s Fashion-a-tions in Downtown Auburn, said she has been pleased with the association’s work so far. In the past she has served as the president, but hasn’t gone to a meeting recently. She said her shop does see an influx of buyers during certain events, like the Auburn Cruise Nite. Welz also supports the association paying to maintain the area’s planter boxes. “The problem is you don’t have anyone that wants to take charge of it,” Welz said. “If I had a complaint and I wasn’t happy with what was going on, I would be at the meeting.” Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com, or follow her on Twitter @AJ_News.