Stepping back, moving ahead
Years of speculation and rumor became reality when a petition to dissolve the Rhinelander Business Improvement District (BID) was delivered to city hall. The signatures of forty five property owners, whose land values total just over $24 million may be all it takes to end the special tax assessment.
The BID funds improvements in the downtown district, and covers about half of Downtown Rhinelander, Incorporated’s (DRI) budget.
“As an organization we need to talk to as many people, both business owners and property owners as possible,” said DRI Board secretary Ken Juon. “To tell them what we do, and explain to them what the downtown would look like without a BID. I don’t think the property owners had a chance to stop and think about that.”
For starters, parking meters existed; parks and green spaces, flower baskets in the summer and waste containers did not. And those things are just on the surface, according to Executive Director Maggie Steffen. “The Downtown Works program, funded through the BID, offers low-interest loans to property owners so they can make needed repairs and maintain their buildings.”
“Behind the scenes programs like that are not as immediately visible,” said Rhinelander Chamber Director Dana DeMet. “People might walk into a business whose door is getting replaced or a new façade, and they probably don’t think, ‘oh that’s because Downtown Rhinelander is here.’ But that might be the difference in staying in business and not staying in business.”
Since 2010, ten loans totally nearly $135,000 were granted to eight BID property owners from the Downtown Works fund; several of whom signed the petition to dissolve the program.
That loan program is only one of the projects that would cease to exist if the BID goes away. DRI is not necessarily going anywhere, but a good chunk of its budget would be gone. Having a viable downtown organization is necessary, according to Juon, for any community to thrive.
”When people come into a city they look at the downtown and look to see if it’s functional, if it’s going places or whether it’s on its way down,” he said. “I thought it was interesting, too, to compare how Antigo’s downtown fared during the same time period, without a downtown organization. It has deteriorated significantly; Rhinelander has not only not deteriorated, but it has steadily moved forward.”Steffen said they have support from many within the BID. And, there are business owners who are not property owners and therefore do not get a say in whether it stays or goes. “Everyone recognizes the importance of the BID. There are times when you look at maybe making it a little stronger, or changing partnership or whatever you have to do,” Steffen continued. “But at the end of the day the BID is important. It achieves a lot for things and is for the betterment of the whole of Rhinelander.”
The chamber’s DeMet agrees. The chamber, DRI, City of Rhinelander and individuals are beginning to work together on creating a strategic plan for the community. The group is also working on the Streetscape project that would make positive changes downtown while the city makes necessary repairs to infrastructure in 2016.“I would be failing in my responsibilities if I didn’t recognize that there is a possibility that a partner would no longer be around, and look for ways the chamber would have to try to fill in that void,” DeMet said. “Looking at the 2016 project, that is absolutely key to the success of not just downtown but the Rhinelander area. So if you look at worst case scenario that we don’t have a BID or the DRI around, I would certainly be talking with the chamber’s board on we can get the city to continue on with some of those projects, but without the funding that exists today.”
The next steps involve taking a step back, talking to business owner and property owners, and then moving ahead.
“We are not going in to try and convince property owners they made a bad decision,” Juon said. “We want to listen to what their concerns are, what they would like to see coming out of the BID, try to convince them they can change their minds. It’s a conversation.”
Executive Director Maggie Steffen said they are moving forward, following the strategic plan authorized last fall to first and foremost, tackle economic development. “It was just a generic statement before; now we are taking concrete action and using the Main Street tools and taking advantage of what is out there,” she said.