This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website.
Looking at West Chester Borough, it can be hard to imagine it not being the quaint, rich place that it is, but not so longer ago, West Chester was a place desperate for businesses and safe streets.
Thanks to the help of many, including the West Chester Business Improvement District (BID), the borough became what it is now.
“I think and I’m hopeful people agree with me that we have done as good job as a Business Improvement District,” said Malcolm Johnstone, executive director of BID. “I think that (West Chester) is definitely more active, more attractive and definitely safer than it was.”
After its creation in 2000, the BID has to be reauthorized every five years and now, they are once again in that process in front of the West Chester Borough Council.
…[Please continue the story on the Daily Local News website by clicking here.]
“This is a very exciting time for us because we are doing a reauthorization,” Johnstone said. “It’s something all BIDs do all the time.”
Johnstone has been the executive director in West Chester since 2001, but has had his hands in BIDs since 1985 out west in Oregon and Idaho.
Though the amount of years can differ from place to place, a reauthorization is necessary.
In West Chester, that time comes every five years and the BID has reached out to the community to see what they want from it.
“We have focused on three things,” Johnstone said. “We did a survey and there are bullet points on what the plan is about.”
Those three things are business attraction, enhanced destination marketing and a sustainable banner program.
“Even though our vacancy rate is relatively low – there are only a handful of store fronts that are actively looking for a renter – there are store fronts and buildings that are in transition,” Johnstone said. “A big part of business attraction is having buildings that work for people. Some of these older buildings can be a challenge, so we have a grant program where we can help businesses improve their façades, which is a public benefit.”
In order to really focus on business attraction, the BID would have to hire another full-time person, bringing their staff to three.
Destination marketing may sound like something fancy, but it’s really just a better term for tourism.
With two new hotels slated to open in the borough, destination marking becomes an even bigger target for the BID to focus on.
“The Brandywine Valley is a large destination area and West Chester is a destination town,” Johnstone said. “You can come to West Chester, stay here and visit 100 attractions in and around the Brandywine Valley. When those two hotels come to fruition, we really have to change our marketing approach so we can keep the hotels at adequate occupancy. A healthy hotel downtown should run 75 to 80 percent.”
Though the borough will have some large banners stretched across the busiest roads, the BID has another idea with banners to make West Chester more attractive.
“We have these poles with brackets on them and they have no banners,” Johnstone said. “They used to when they were first put in some five or six years ago. Those banners only have a five-year life. We need to create a sustainable banner program. If we have 200 brackets downtown, let’s do 40 a year and just keep doing it and fund those 40 and replace a fifth of the banners every year. That can change the way downtown looks.”
But before any of those changes in the BID’s five-year plan can take effect, it has to be reauthorized.
On Sept. 22 at 6 p.m., the Borough Council will hold a public hearing on the BID’s reauthorization and its plan, which can be read on the BID’s website at www.downtownwestchester.com.
“If the Borough Council decides to make that plan the final plan (on Sept. 22), then we start a 45-day remonstrance period, or objection period,” Johnstone said. “The way BID laws work everywhere that I have ever seen them is it’s a vote done by objection. You can only vote one way or not vote and the only way you can vote is to object to the plan.
“If more than 40 percent of the property owners, as measured by the property – if an owner has two properties, it could be two votes – vote against the BID, then it won’t continue.”
In years past, the BID has received some objections, but never enough to raise concern, which is what it hopes will be the same case again this year.
“In 2000, it was around 27 percent against the BID before I got here,” Johnstone said. “In 2005 with the first reauthorization, we had one property object on general principals. In 2010, we had a few more object at probably 3 percent. We’ll see what this one does. Forty-five days is a long time for people to make a decision.”
Right now, Johnstone has heard much of anything from property owners. The five-year plan itself has received less than 100 views on the website and the only comment he has heard from someone is that they like the BID.
Though West Chester is booming, Johnstone feels that the BID still has work it can do for the borough.
“There are people who say we’re revitalized, especially compared to the ‘90s,” he said. “That is true, except that the environment changes all the time. It’s our job to see where the trends are going. We have to be ahead of the trends.”