The Burlington Business Association and Mayor Weinberger Rigged the Downtown Improvement District Process

This is Part 3 of a 4 Part series on how Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington Business Association don’t represent regular Burlingtonians and are using their influence to push a rushed and rigged Downtown Improvement District that gives a handful of wealthy folks even more power at the expense of actual Burlington residents. Parts 1, 2, 4, are here.

The Burlington Downtown Improvement District was rigged from the starts, with the vast majority of members coming from the Business Community, particularly the Burlington Business Association.

I came across a document (also shared by other community members just a few days ago) that was way too important to save. It shows the level of coziness and conflicts that exists between our elected officials and businesses in Burlington.

6 out of 9 members of the Downtown Improvement District Advisory Committee were either directly picked by, owned businesses that were members of, or have business partners that work for, the Burlington Business Association.

A total of 66% of the committee members were directly influenced by the Burlington Business Association, and 89% were influenced by the BBA or by the Mayor, who seems to favor the BBA over other local political advocacy groups.

In an RFP written by the Burlington Business Association in 2017 for the new Downtown ‘Improvement’ District, I came across two parts that raise serious concerns about the entire process as we vote in a couple days to privatize our downtown and put it in he hands of a select wealthy few.

First, the RFP discusses the DID working group. Do you know anything about them, like maybe how many public meetings they had? Hard to tell, but a quick Google search suggests few people knew about them and that 0 meetings were open to the public.

The DID Working Group includes representatives from key organizations leading the project for the City of Burlington. It includes a single representation from the following organizations: a.) Burlington Business Association, Kelly Devine b.) Church Street Marketplace BID, Ron Redmond c.) Community and Economic Development Office, City of Burlington, Gillian Nanton d.) Department of Public Works, Patrick Mulligan 2 This group meets regularly, up to weekly. This group will work closely with the selected contractor to provide input, direction and local leadership on the project. They will serve as the key point of contact for the contractor. Kelly Devine of the Burlington Business Association will be the key contact and will call on DID Working Group members to support this effort as needed and as their areas of expertise warrant.

Okay but at least the DID Advisory Group was democratic, open to the public, and received input from lots of citizens, yes?

Turns out Google also comes up with a whopping 0 results for any meeting times or announcements of public meetings made by the advisory group. But I did find a city document suggesting 21 people voted on the question of a DID in a ‘Town Meeting’. Yes, 21 people, along with the 9 DID advisory members, may have decided all of this for us.

Downtown Improvement District Advisory Committee Members with Nominating Organization

City Council: Councilor Adam Roof
● City Council: Downtown Resident – to be appointed
● Church Street Marketplace: Jeff Nick, Chair
● Mayor Weinberger – Legal Professional – Robert DiPalma, Paul, Frank & Collins, Burlington Resident
● Mayor Weinberger – Financial Professional – vetting of candidates underway
● BBA Nominee, Downtown Property Owner – David Schilling, Investors Corp of Vermont
● BBA Nominee, Downtown Office Tenant – Ashley Bond, University of Vermont Medical Center Manager of Property and Real Estate
● BBA Nominee, Downtown Retail Tenant – Kara Alnaswari, Leibling
● BBA Nominee, Marketing Professional – Rich Price, Select Design

Please, think about this.

The committee that has been paraded around as fully supporting the privatization plan was formed 4/9ths by the BBA, 2/9ths by the Mayor who supports and works closely with the BBA, 1/9th the Church Street Marketplace Chair who is a member of the BBA, 1/9th a citizen chosen by the council and 1/9th Councilor Roof who runs a business in a clear conflict of interest with an employee of the BBA (and his roommate).

Councilor Adam Roof (I, Ward 8) clear conflict of interest voting on items that are submitted by and affect the Burlington Business Association and his Business Partner.

As Councilor Roof so eloquently stated about the vote,

…he was excited that after nearly two years of work the proposal was before the council to send to the Charter Change Committee.  “From the beginning there was one real guiding principle that we knew we must operate from if this eventual proposal was going to earn the support of a majority of this council and of course the voting public. We must ensure this proposal be built upon a foundation of both common ground and common good in so far that it must deliver both economic and social vitality to our downtown for the benefit of our entire community. I believe that after a lot of work this proposal strikes that balance.”

Could anyone help me understand how this Downtown ‘Improvement’ District process was done in a thoughtful, democratic way, where the vast majority of residents and workers were fairly represented in this drastic change, and how the public was included in this advisory committee? Because this looks like crony capitalism to me.

Most Church Street ‘small’ Business Owners Do Not Live in Burlington

This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series on how Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington Business Association don’t represent regular Burlingtonians and are using their influence to push a rushed and rigged Downtown Improvement District that gives a handful of wealthy folks even more power at the expense of actual Burlington residents. Parts 1, 3, 4, are here.

It turns out that while the city is comfortable handing over more power to a body of business owners, 75% of whom live outside the city, they are uncomfortable giving noncitizen residents, and communities affected by the Burlington Airport, a meaningful voice in our politics.

*Post Updated to reflect more accurate numbers of 75% of Church Street Business owners live outside Burlington and roughly 1 out of 4 live in Burlington.*

Another argument that folks who support Burlington’s Downtown Privatization District have made is that most of the ‘small’ business owners on Church Street are local. (How are we defining small? Does Lake Champlain Chocolates count? If we go by federal definitions, businesses with 480 employees count as small…when we don’t define our terms it’s tougher to have honest conversations, which is likely the point of the rushing the privatization plan in the first place. And more importantly, even if our elected officials don’t care as long as their agenda passes, we lose trust in our local government.)

But what does local mean, particularly in the context of democratic government institutions, and why is Mayor Weinberger and most Burlington Councilors excited to give power to certain folks who cannot legally vote in the city while denying said power to others?

First, we need some graphs for context!

(All data was gleaned from Secretary of State Website, Burlington Property Database, or from the Church Street Marketplace Website, so some newer businesses may not have been included on this list. Happy to share data with anyone who asks.)

As we can see, although rents are making it difficult for non-boutique small businesses to compete on Church Street, only about 1 out of every 4 Church Street businesses is corporate/franchise owned. Seems pretty damn good, right?

Here’s where things become a bit trickier:

Of the 62 small businesses on Church Street, only 17, or 28%, of the owners live in Burlington – only 1 out of every 4 businesses on Church Street are owned by a Burlington resident. It seems that Church Street is less of an economic opportunity for Burlington residents/small business owners and more of an economic engine for those who live outside the city.

Burlington Church Street Business Owner Home value vs the citywide median.

On top of this, most of those local business owners are also homeowners, and they tend to have 40-65% more homeowner wealth than the typical Burlington homeowner (numbers on the city website are often only 80-85% of true value), putting local Church Street business owners in the top 20ish% wealthiest of all residents. This is not to mention Church Street landlords (a blog post for another day). With businesses reaping 20% profits since 2008, owners have taken all of the pie while leaving downtown workers in the dust.

Burlington Business owners already have lots of influence in the community, so it’s tough to understand why they’re grabbing for more. There’s the Burlington Business Association which has been given enormous latitude, even with obvious conflicts of interest, over city projects, and there’s the Church Street Marketplace Commission, where 4 out of 9 members must be business owners who can live outside of Burlington.

So why are we handing more power over to these business owners, when 1) the Mayor and many Council Democrats were skeptical of even allowing non-citizen residents to vote several years ago and 2) the Mayor has made it clear he would not share power with the citizens of communities, like Winooski and South Burlington, who have seen serious negative effects by the Burlington Airport? Why is it okay to give power away to a handful of business owners but not to majority-locally elected democratic councils and governments?

And lastly, if the city gave a damn about workers and marginalized populations, why wouldn’t they be making sure that most of the seats of this new privatized downtown district went not to those with power and wealth, but to those who continue to be left behind in Burlington’s steady economy?

Why We Should Keep Inclusionary Zoning the Way it is

As I’ve been reading up on the inclusionary zoning working group (I unfortunately missed the last meeting today), I wanted to include some data I came across.

The truth is that the #1 reason more development has occurred in Burlington has less to do with Mayor Weinberger, less to do with any changes (and there have been very few changes in Mayor Weinberger’s first 6 years, except for some spot zoning) – the real reason is historically low interest rates.

 

If we as a city were to follow the recommendations of Erik Hoesktra of Redstone,  inclusionary zoning would only trigger when projects over 60 units large were built, killing 87% of all projects that built inclusionary zoning units. While building in bulk will lower some costs, the high cost of land and high cost of labor, along with historically low interest rates, and zoning laws that only favor density in poorer parts of town, are the main reasons we build or do not build new housing. Of the 2200 market rate units built during that time, 24%, or 545 units, were did not fall under inclusionary requirements (for now, we will ignore the hundreds of college units and college-associated housing that did not require IZ units). At minimum, 100 units of integrated housing would not have been built over the course of 20 years – 5 units a year, and at most 195 units would not have been built, or 10 units a year.

If you hear anyone saying that we haven’t built new housing because of inclusionary zoning, or that inclusionary zoning makes it nearly impossible for developers to make a profit, show them the data.

The Mayor’s Early Childhood Initiative

For those who are interested in the subject of early childhood education, you may have read a recent article in Seven Days in which I was quoted. Calling someone out publicly is not something I enjoy doing – and it’s tough living in a community where often the only way for public officials to shift their perspective is to spend years trying to work with them until you’ve been ignored so badly that you feel like you have no other options.

During a conversation with some early ed folks after the article came out, I posited that a big issue with Mayor Weinberger’s early ed initiative is that there is no clear goal, if any goal at all, and it’s hard to follow someone who makes mistakes, who won’t include local experts and professionals in the process, who won’t use their political capital on an issue that they say is very important to them, especially if you don’t know what their end goal is. Add a lack of communication (except when election season rolls around), and the end goal is all the more murkier.

While organizations like the Permanent Fund have a clear goal, that of universal publicly funded early education (which leads one to question how much they support the current initiative and why), without a larger goals, these legislative victories may end up missing the mark.

Is the goal for organizations and politicians to create a single policy initiative, like universal early education, or is it a means to a larger end, that all children and their families grow up healthy, that all children born in Burlington live in safe housing, eat healthy foods, learn in school without (too many) distractions. There’s an idea in the healthcare community that food is healthcare, that housing is healthcare, since without them your health deteriorates quickly. This is an idea that our policymakers need to take to heart when it comes to children. Being in a early ed setting 8 hours a day is one part (and a large one) of what should be the end goal, making sure children live and grow up in safe and healthy environments.

Yet too often policymakers see early education as the end goal, the solution that will solve most other problems. Yet if families don’t make enough money, with a low minimum wage, to put healthy food on the table, if families cannot afford to live in safe housing since our city spends very few resources on building permanently affordable, low-income housing for families, if families with deep levels of trauma cannot afford healthcare and therapy, and instead deal with stress in harmful ways (smoking, drinking, drug use, abuse), then publicly funded early childhood education will not help the growing number of young children and families who struggle to survive in Burlington.

The goal of the mayor’s early childhood initiative, and frankly every politician in the state, should be that every child regardless of income or background can grow up in healthy and safe environments, and we should be forming our housing, economic, and education policies around this goal. While it won’t be cheap, a holistic approach can support our children from every angle and ensure our governmental policies live out to our values.