The Downtown Improvement District Exposed Burlington’s Pathetic Public Processes

(You Can Read More About the Downtown Improvement District and Burlington Business Association here.)

When local government thinks and act like a business, everyone but business owners and landlords lose. Burlington’s Downtown Improvement District (DID) process shows that while ‘stakeholders’ and self-selecting and unscientific ‘focus groups’ may work for businesses, they are quite useless and even harmful for effective, local democratic government. Lousy and rushed public processes have become a hallmark of Burlington’s Weinberger administration, and the DID process was the ugliest process yet.

Just take a look at the list of stakeholders included in the 38+ person PUMA focus groups to see how these meetings were made up of predetermined interest groups, not a cross section of local residents. PUMA met with ‘stakeholders’, interest groups with power or influence in a system, while obviously excluding more marginalized and disconnected citizens.

Even the online survey was heavily skewed towards native-English speakers with high levels of wealth. DID supporters, including the Burlington Business Association, who sent out the RFP for the survey in a clear conflict of interest and blurring of government and business lobbying, touted this flawed focus group and survey as evidence of mass public support for a new business district. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that the 1,143 survey respondents, the bulk of collected ‘public’ opinion, were even asked if they supported a Downtown Improvement District.

The survey respondents were far, far wealthier and much, much older than the average Burlington resident. Those making over $100,000+ a year were over-represented by 20%, while those making under $50,000 a year, half of all Burlington residents, were under-represented by 33%. Young adults were under-represented by 31%.

” Mayor Weinberger, speaking at the Democrats’ party, said the DID expansion proposal marked a “very big change” that voters weren’t ready for. He said the authorization request left many details to be ironed out later, which made it hard to quell voters’ doubts. ” – Seven Days

The Downtown Improvement District is another in a long line of ‘public’ processes with very limited participation and predetermined outcomes. These processes are pinned on a series of lies that are designed to give the appearance of collaborative and inclusive democracy, while bowing to wealthy business and real estate interests. These lies further erode trust in our local government, further depresses daily civic participation, and leaves residents feeling powerless and disconnected from their own community.

The Burlington Business Association, and DID Supporters, Do Not Represent Burlington Residents

This is Part 4 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, 3, are here.

The BBA is made up of very wealthy business owners and homeowners, many of whom have little personal interest or stake in Burlington, who care more about bringing wealthy tourists to the city than serving regular Burlington residents, while a handful of BBA Members have extra influence. The BBA doesn’t represent ‘mom and pop’ businesses or Burlington residents in any real way, and when they support the Downtown Improvement District it is not to the benefit of most Burlington residents and workers.

When one thinks of the Burlington Business Association, they think of restaurants, bars, and retail shops owned by Burlington residents. The truth is quite the opposite.

40 members, or 22% of the BBA, has neither a shop or home in Burlington. Think about that. 1/5th of the BBA has ZERO reason to be members of the BBA in the first place! For all we know, maybe they’re actually interested in helping their own community’s economy and sabotaging ours.

81 members, or 40% of the BBA, aren’t even based in Burlington. While they have a financial stake in Burlington, it’s hard to believe they’re equally invested in Burlington when their main investment is somewhere else; they cannot be as committed to Burlington as a small business owner living in Burlington.

Of the ‘Small Businesses’ that politicians and the BBA and their supporters love to fetishize so much, only 27% of small business owners even live in Burlington. Why is our city good enough for them to extract wealth from but not good enough to live in, to raise their kids?

When you think of Burlington, what comes to mind? Restaurants, bars, retail, right? It turns out that the BBA barely represents the storefronts in Burlington, the whole reason our downtown is doing so well in the first place. Only 22% of the BBA membership represents the service industry, while a full 56% of BBA membership represents tourism, other business organizations, businesses that support other businesses, finance/lawyers, and real estate industry.

These are businesses that aren’t small mom and pop shops trying to make or sell a product. These are large corporations, businesses that try to attract wealthy business partners, clients, or tourists. These are not businesses that support, nor are invested in, the vast majority of Burlington workers or residents.


On top of this, the BBA members who live in Burlington are extremely wealthier than the typical Burlington resident, with an average home value of $560k-$640k, 75-100% higher than the MEDIAN home owner, putting them into the top 10-15% of wealthiest Burlington residents. In fact, only 1 member who lives in Burlington has a home that is priced below the median.

Lastly, as a little quirk, the BBA has a handful of incredibly wealthy members who have multiple businesses registered to the BBA, thereby giving them more influence over the BBA agenda. (Oddly enough, many Burlington departments are members of the BBA in a very strange blurring of lines and potential conflict of interest.)

It’s worth asking if the folks supporting the downtown improvement district have Burlington’s best interests in mind, and why our councilors overwhelmingly approved a rush plan supported by wealthy business lobbyists.

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?

The Downtown Privatization Folks Are Wrong – Burlington’s Downtown Economy Is Healthy

This is Part 1 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, 3, 4, are here.

Folks who support the Downtown Privitization Plan will tell you our downtown economy is struggling. Yet what they don’t tell you is that while Burlington Business owners have seen profits grow by 20% in real value since 2008, downtown workers have not shared in any of those profits.

The many pro-business/anti-worker folks (along with the powerful Burlington Business Association) supporting the city’s rushed Downtown Improvement District, a plan that does absolutely nothing to meaningfully increase democratic participation or offer inclusion to marginalized voices, will tell you that this privatization plan needs to happen. They will offer the same arguments they used when trying to sell us the ongoing $22-million-public-funding mall debacle.

They will tell you that Burlington’s economy, and Church Street, are dying, and the only way to save our entire city is not by making sure everyone has enough money to afford basic necessities so they can support local businesses, but rather that we hand over even more control to wealthy non-Burlington landlords and non-Burlington businesses.

Why is it that Burlington is a good enough place for many of these folks to make money, on the backs of workers and renters, but not a good enough place for them to live, raise children, and spend said profits in?

The data, however, doesn’t support their doom-and-gloom claims for business owners (for workers and renters, that’s a different story for another day). In fact, Burlington’s economy is very stable and has been growing well (20%) since the Great Recession, particularly when we account for weakened unions, runaway healthcare costs, growing income and wealth inequality, and stagnant wages for most residents.

Meal, Rooms, and Alcohol sales have grown by 69% when factored in for inflation.

The picture is much less rosy when we consider Retail and Use taxes, which have been hit hard by many factors, including the problem that most workers pay over 40% of their post-taxed income to rent.

Sales and Use taxes have decreased by 50% when factored with inflation.

It looks like maybe the Burlington economy, while not a magical beast that can defy national and international trends of wealth inequality and global capital ravishing local economies, has been quite consistent.

The truth is that since 2005, when accounting for inflation, our economy has shrunk by 1.1%.

Since January 2009, Burlington’s retail and food economy have grown by 20% overall, so why again do we need to hand over power to the few folks who have actually made money since the 2009 Recession?