Media Coverage

As business owners question King Street’s future, city considers ‘improvement district’

preservation-admin , June 19, 2021

Read the original Post and Courier article here

Charlestonians are asking questions about King Street.

Both a literal and figurative center of the Charleston peninsula, King Street is seen by many as one of the city’s most valuable assets: a long stretch of historic structures and businesses that attracts millions of people each year.

But some property and business owners feel the district needs a vision for the future, especially after the tough year retailers and restaurants experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some feel the street should be safer and cleaner and that the private sector should have a better way to communicate concerns — and ideas for improvement — with the city.

In response, city officials are in the early stages of trying to create what is known as a business improvement district, which would generate additional property tax revenue for marketing, special events, beautification projects, public safety enhancements and business recruitment efforts near King Street.

The money from that improvement district would be paid by property owners in a designated area along King Street, but it would not go into the city’s coffers.

Instead, the tax revenue would be sent to a newly formed nonprofit led by property owners and business leaders from the bars, restaurants and boutique shops that dot King Street. It would be up to those people to decide how to best use the money to make sure the area remains a vibrant commercial hub.

The stretch of King Street from Broad to Spring streets contains more than 360 businesses, according to numbers from the city.

Along that stretch, the street ranges from a hotspot for restaurants and bars in the north to a home for high-end shops and art galleries near Broad Street.

The creation of a business improvement district for King Street is something that’s been tossed around for decades. Similar versions of the idea were mentioned as far back as 1977, when former Mayor Joe Riley and his administration put together a plan for commercial revitalization in downtown Charleston.

But the desire for a more formalized way to steer King Street’s direction came to a head last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic put a pall over the area’s typically bustling atmosphere.

Sidewalks emptied as the steady stream of tourists flowing into Charleston slowed to a trickle. National retailers like Jos. A. Bank and the parent company of Loft filed for bankruptcy and left their King Street storefronts dark. And, after a protest over police violence and the murder of George Floyd spun off into a riot, King Street storefronts were boarded up for days as property owners covered up smashed-in windows or put up plywood as a precaution.

Cell phone location data collected for the city along King Street suggests there were roughly 3.3 million fewer visitors to the area in 2020 than in 2019. Overall visitation to the Charleston region as calculated by the College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis went from the 2019 record 7.3 million to 5.1 million.

Just in the past few months, King Street’s commercial district has started to show signs of a robust recovery. In the daytime, tourists wander among shops, art galleries and restaurants. At night, upper King is filled with bar-goers again, lined up to get into crowded venues or grab a bite from a food cart.

The city is also hyper-focused on King Street because of violent events that took place there over the past year.

In May, a brawl broke out on upper King Street and left at least six people hospitalized with gunshot and stab wounds. The fight reignited complaints from businesses in the area who sustained damage during last year’s riot.

The improvement district could help with issues that businesses want to tackle by providing a sustainable funding source that is dedicated to that area: tax revenue from King Street properties for King Street properties.

A new ‘backbone’ for King Street

Though planning for that business district is in the early stages, the nonprofit that would be behind it, called the Charleston Downtown Alliance, has been meeting frequently, discussing plans for the thoroughfare’s future and pooling funds for projects, like the installation of hanging flower baskets.

The group aims to be a “private-sector backbone” of efforts to refocus and refresh King Street, said Doug Warner of Explore Charleston, who is coordinating the destination marketing group’s involvement in the alliance.

As the primary marketer of the Charleston region to out-of-town visitors, Explore Charleston sees King Street as the “heart of the community,” Warner said, and its upkeep is therefore vital to maintaining the city’s status as a top tourist destination. Explore Charleston also has its offices on King Street, between an art gallery and new Warby Parker optical shop.

The alliance is not a hospitality-driven project, Warner said. Their involvement has more to do with what King Street signifies for the region as a whole. The district is a kind of tone-setter for the greater Charleston area. If King Street is thriving, so is Charleston as a destination.

“We’re at the table because we realize how important it is,” Warner said.

For more than a year, the Charleston Downtown Alliance has been holding meetings, recently about every two or three weeks.

Those meetings have been attended by:

  • Chris Price, PrimeSouth Group
  • Mike Shuler, 32 North
  • Marty Wall, Bennett Hospitality
  • Marianna Hay, Croghan’s Jewel Box
  • John Keener, Charleston Crab House
  • Michael Tall, Explore Charleston
  • Helen Hill, Explore Charleston
  • Kristopher King, Preservation Society
  • Lou Hammond, Lou Hammond Group
  • Rhett Outen, Croghan’s Jewel Box
  • Tom Stockdale, The Beach Company
  • Roy Neal, El Hefe
  • Meg Thompson, city of Charleston
  • Kendra Stewart, Riley Center for Livable Communities

They aren’t at a point where leaders have been named within the group, Warner said, and how it would work in the context of a business improvement district isn’t known yet. For example, it’s not known if the group would grow to include more King Street property owners and, if it were to grow, how it would be determined who would join the group and have the ability to vote on how King Street tax dollars would be used.

Hill, the CEO of Explore Charleston, told city officials this week that anyone associated with King Street would be able to be involved in the Charleston Downtown Alliance.

For now, the projects the alliance undertakes are self-funded.

That was the case for the hanging flower baskets that were first installed on King Street late last year. The baskets hang year-round and require a few re-plantings a year and regular watering and other upkeep, for which the alliance is responsible, Warner said, not the city.

It funded the baskets, in part, by selling annual sponsorships: $500 for a single basket or $6,000 for a full block.

One of the next projects, Warner said, is an “elevated King Street holiday light package.”

For alliance-led efforts, Warner said, it is looking at three main areas: beautification, programming, and economic development.

On the economic-development side, he said, the group is interested in the “tenant mix” on King Street.

“What nobody wants to see is this to be full of any-town America shops,” Warner said, adding that they need to retain established “homegrown” retailers like Croghan’s Jewel Box while adding developments that allow King Street to evolve and meet needs, like the small-form Target store that was announced this spring as the new tenant for the Majestic Square building at King and Market streets.

The space Target will occupy was one of the storefronts vacated during the COVID-19 pandemic: After nine years downtown, clothing retailer Forever 21 closed up shop there early last summer.

The continued rise of online shopping is creating its own worries. Many people are concerned King Street’s brick and mortar stores will have trouble sustaining themselves over the long-term.

Some members of a special commission set up by the city last year to discuss issues related to the King Street business district argued Charleston needs to re-imagine the area in order for it to survive.

“If we do nothing right now, I guarantee you the business will continue to decline and there will be more and more vacancies,” Bob Siegel, a downtown Charleston resident and former CEO of the clothing brand Lacoste USA, said during the first commission meeting last August. “Unless Charleston, the city, is really prepared to help and support the reinvention of this shopping experience on King, traffic and sales will continue to decline.”

Learning from other cities

Many other cities already have similar districts in place to help raise the profile of their commercial centers and provide additional amenities to those areas.

New Orleans had one of the first when its Downtown Development District was created in 1974. Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York City also have numerous business improvement districts in operation. And here in South Carolina, the strategy has been used to help boost areas like Columbia’s Main Street, which made a huge rebound in recent years.

In March, a panel of six economic development professionals organized by the Urban Land Institute of South Carolina came to Charleston to compile information and insight on King Street. They met with business and property owners and hosted focus groups, said Kendra Stewart, the director at the College of Charleston’s Riley Center for Livable Communities, which has been working with the city and with the Charleston Downtown Alliance on efforts to steer King Street’s future.

Members of that panel included:

  • Robb Brown, president and founder of the Denver Retail Group
  • Gerald Gordon, Riley Center Fellow and former CEO of the Fairfax County Virginia Economic Development Authority
  • Bill King, president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance
  • Nancy Whitworth, former Economic Development Director for the city of Greenville
  • Matt Kennell, president and CEO of Columbia’s City Center Partnership
  • Christopher Lambka, director of Toole Design’s Spartanburg office

“One of the clear things that came out of this was that there was a need for some type of vision for King Street,” Stewart said.

The center has been working on putting together a “vision statement” for King Street — a kind of guiding description of what it should be going forward.

They started by putting out a survey that asked respondents to note if they were King Street property or business owners. They asked about the biggest concerns people had about King Street and words that people would like to use to describe the district they envision.

That information was then presented to a small group of King Street property and business owners, Stewart said, and they started crafting an actual statement, which she said is close to being ready for release.

A theme that emerged is that people “felt King Street wasn’t as clean and as safe as it had been,” she said.

Survey respondents were also concerned about the economic state of the core retail area, especially after COVID-induced vacancies.

People were also concerned about maintaining and increasing diversity, Stewart said, both in the kinds of businesses that line the street and the customers they attract. Survey respondents didn’t want to see a King Street that’s “just serving one type of clientele.”

The racial diversity among business owners on King Street is not well tracked either. The city does not collect information on how many minority-owned businesses operate in the commercial corridor.

Still, people did point to assets that continue to work in King Street’s favor, namely its distinctive, historic architecture.

After finalizing a vision statement, Stewart said she thinks the next step will be figuring out “what’s missing from King Street.”

Forming the district

Charleston officials are in the process of hiring a consultant to help establish the proposed business improvement district, but there is still a lot that needs to happen before the plan can be implemented.

The city’s elected leaders and the business community along King Street will help to decide how large of an area the improvement district should cover.

When the city opened up its search for a consulting firm, it noted the entire King Street commercial district. But the district can be as large or as small as the city would like.

The most important point is to be able to raise enough tax revenue off of properties in the district to provide the public amenities businesses want. Those public services are meant to go above and beyond what the city currently offers.

The consulting company will help the city with the math and geography of the improvement district. It will decide if the improvement district only includes properties on King Street or expands to cover the side streets between Meeting Street and St. Philip Street.

Once that boundary for the district is set, the consultant will also be tasked with organizing public meetings, calculating how much the tax bills for each property owner will increase and drafting the legal documents to officially form the district.

Any property owners inside the proposed district will have a say in whether the plans becomes a reality. Under state law, the business improvement district can be set up if a majority of the property owners in that area agree to go along with it.

That’s why the city has referred to the idea as a “self-help” improvement district. They view it as “private sector investment” in the area.

The city will circulate a petition to eligible property owners, and if they get at least 51 percent of the assessed property value in the area to sign on, the new taxes will be added onto people’s bills.

City leaders are already lining up behind the proposal. Mayor John Tecklenburg, who is in his second term, said King Street is still an attractive location to do business, even after last year’s economic downturn. But he thinks the improvement district could make the environment along King Street even better.

“I think there’s a recognition that when you have a district that is always evolving, always changing a little bit, you need that extra level of focus, attention and service to make everything work,” Tecklenburg said.

Not everyone who has a stake in King Street has heard about the push for a business improvement district. Several restaurant owners along King Street did not know about the idea until they were approached by a Post and Courier reporter.

Keith Benjamin, the owner of Uptown Social, was one of the people who was not looped in yet. But he said the idea could be good for his bar and the other businesses along King Street.

Benjamin, who also has experience with restaurants in New York City, said he’s worked in business improvement districts before.

The one he was familiar with in New York City, he said, helped to organize district-wide events to attract more people into the area. It also provided a liaison between the businesses in the district and the police department. He thinks those types of strategies could be helpful on King Street, especially with the recent violence that occurred in the early morning hours.

Benjamin said he already offered to help pay for more lighting and additional security cameras on King Street.

“I know there are business owners out here that want to contribute,” Benjamin said.

The city has suggested the improvement district could be up and running by the end of this year.

As part of the search for a consultant, the city’s staff said they plan to start passing around a petition to property owners in the district by August, and they estimated the City Council could vote on the proposal by September.

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