Solano Merchants Uncertain About Business Improvement District

By Judith Scherr
Friday November 24, 2006

Jim Slaten’s sewing machine service shop has been on Solano Avenue for more than four decades. Slaten says he doesn’t need an organization to help keep his sidewalks clean and certainly doesn’t need a new planter in front of his store. 

So why belong to the Solano Avenue Business Improvement District? asks the outspoken small business owner, argues that the BID taxes business owners but gives them nothing in return. 

Others on the avenue disagree, however. Jan Snidow, who chairs the BID board of directors and owns Powder Box Salon, says the BID brings together the Berkeley and Albany sections of Solano into a more comprehensive unit. 

The Solano Business Improvement District, established by a vote of the Berkeley City Council in 2003, assesses every business owner in the district an annual fee from $65 to $500, depending on the size and location of the business. 

The BID was initiated by a petition circulated by business owners on Solano Avenue and enacted after the City Council held the requisite public hearing. Like any city assessment, the council approves the mandatory fees, if they are not opposed by a significant number of those who will be affected, said Dave Fogarty, manager in the city’s Economic Development division. 

A public hearing renewing the BID and approving the Solano Avenue 2007 workplan is scheduled for the Dec. 5 City Council meeting. Critics and supporters can address the council on the question at this time. 

Snidow told the Daily Planet that the BID “tries to make the community cohesive” through its connection to the Solano Avenue Association, which serves the Berkeley and Albany portions of the Avenue. (The BID contracts with the SAA for services.) 

“The BID offers us all sorts of things: cleaning sidewalks, planters, marketing,” Snidow said, arguing that assessment fees are “not gigantic.” 

“You can’t please everyone,” she added. 

Susan Powning began her business, By Hand, as a sewing collective and then moved to Walnut Square some 31 years ago. The business has grown and changed. She relocated to Solano Avenue 11 years ago, where she still includes hand-made merchandise among her offerings. 

Powning said she has been critical of the limited services she gets from her assessment to the BID, but she changed her mind after a recent community meeting. Listening to the pros and cons, she said she started looking at the big picture and has come to believe the BID plays a more intangible role “nurturing the neighborhood as a whole.”  

While some merchants complain they don’t like the Solano Stroll, an event that brings huge crowds to Solano Avenue and is sponsored by the BID and the Solano Avenue Association, she said she understands that, even if people don’t buy things from her store that day, new people see the business and come back later.  

“People can close their stores that day and that’s fine,” she said. 

Solano Avenue Association Executive Director Lisa Bullwinkel—SAA services are contracted by the BID—says the BID came into being because some people refused to give voluntary contributions to the SAA and “got a free ride.”  

Among the services the BID provides are street cleaning twice a week and steam cleaning once a month, she said. 

“Most the people complaining did not want to pay [into the SAA] in the first place,” she said. “They are not happy campers about joining things.” 

But, disparaging Bullwinkel’s $60,000 annual salary, paid for in part by the BID, Jim Slaten says all the district does is “create jobs for a few people.” 

He argues that it should be the merchants’ responsibility to install planters and clean the sidewalks in front of their businesses.  

Slaten says during his 42 years on Solano, he’s seen the business district go through “the same thing any business district goes through.” Businesses that don’t do well go under and those that provide something people want survive, he said.  

“We don’t need a business district for that,” he said.