In Center City, the streets are clean and safe. The parks and squares are neatly landscaped, and even the vast underground transit concourse is as urine-stench-free as any reasonable person could hope.
While Central Philadelphia is certainly a charmed quarter of the city in its own right, these sparkling assets are not coincidental. Since 1990, a group of business owners have combined their own resources to pay to have our downtown polished into the gem we behold today.
From street cleaning to installing streetlights, and even paying employees to walk around and help lost tourists, the Center City Business Improvement District has picked up many of services that City Hall is either too poor or uninspired to provide on its own.
PAYING FOR A BETTER SERVICE
The idea is that by making the city more attractive and safe, more people are likely to visit and spend money, and others may even want to move in and start spending money all the time. It has proven to be an effective strategy, as the Center City District reports the downtown population is growing from 78,000 in 2000 to a projected 95,000 in 2010.
And these new Philadelphians are supporting their local businesses, as well. In a survey conducted by the CCD – which releases annual studies and progress reports – the number one reason new downtown residents decided to relocate to central Philadelphia was to be closer “to shopping, dining or entertainment”.
Without the street cleaning and landscaping the CCD pays for, would many prospective residents have found Center City as attractive a place to call home? It is difficult to say, but many residents would consider keeping streets free of trash as a basic city service, and one that Philadelphia’s government can’t furnish on its own.
“In Philadelphia, Business Improvement Districts are providing services that the city cannot provide or never provided,” said Denis Murphy, a city employee who works with another BID in North Philadelphia.
Some have claimed that this leads to lopsided levels of service, creating disparities between the downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. Murphy stressed that BIDs can actually allow the city to focus its resources where they are more needed.
“In Center City, business owners voluntarily decided they wanted a higher a level of service and they’re paying for it,” Murphy said. “One view is that this allows the city to focus what resources we do have to other areas that aren’t covered by a BID.”
CAUTION FOR THE FUTURE
While the CCD and other BIDs in Philadelphia have operated efficiently and effectively, we as a city need to tread carefully as these organizations grow in size and influence. While the picture is quite rosy at the moment, the road to privatization is fraught with pitfalls as private business interests assume control of more aspects of public life.
As these organizations are not responsible to taxpayers, BIDs operate with limited oversight from general public, yet they are swiftly becoming as powerful as some government entities. They must be subject to equal, if not greater, levels of scrutiny as the city government willingly hands over control of areas that were once public domain.
Ryan Briggs can be reached at email@example.com.