Proponents of the new tax say it will provide sustainable funding to improve downtown for generations to come, while opponents say it’s too much, too soon, given the present economy.
A new Downtown Development Authority, or DDA, could lead capital improvements and economic development, and was suggested by a comprehensive planning study commissioned by the city last year.
Only property owners can vote on whether to establish the new district, which covers several blocks of Main Street and a few blocks on each side, from the Uncompahgre River to the west and to San Juan Avenue to the east.
The mill levy to create the district would mean an 8.2 percent increase in property taxes for property owners in the district, which would be about $254 per year for property with a value of $175,000, according to the brochure prepared by the DDA steering committee, which was appointed by the city council.
The steering committee has published a brochure, created a website (www.montrosedowntown.com) and held nine town meetings over several months to explain what the new tax district could create for downtown.
Steering Committee Chair Bob Brown of Around the Corner Art Gallery said establishing a DDA is vital to the future of downtown Montrose, and that although there is some new construction going on, many buildings are vacant. Waiting to do something about downtown will only mean that things will get worse, he said.
“Even though the economic cycle will eventually be favorable, in the next downturn we will be seriously wounded,” he said. “If we don’t do something now, we will be coping with blight. That’s the bottom line to this, to turn the whole cycle around.”
If approved, the new DDA would have lots of possibilities, Brown said, including using TIF, or tax incremental financing, where increases in sales tax over a baseline would stay in the district.
“When you set a baseline, the amount that already being taxed, that stays the same and keeps going to those important projects like schools and libraries,” he said. “It’s the increment above, caused by the DDA, that’s an incentive for the DDA to do good things, to take that money and then apply it to new projects.”
The city had a Downtown Improvement District established back in 1974, which enacted a mill levy to fund improvements. Bonds made possible by that tax built several downtown parking lots, improved streets and built Centennial Plaza, but those bonds were retired in 1994, according to the steering committee brochure, and the district came to an end.
But with the beginning of a new DDA, first year projections would see collections of $140,000 for programs and operations while exploring options for grants and other sources, which could be used to repay capital construction bonds, Brown said.
If the DDA is created, the first step would be to hire an experienced director, Brown said, so the organization can get rolling, The Montrose City Council would appoint a board of directors and oversee the DDA budget.
“We would set up an office and start looking for opportunities to acquire money for capital improvements, and once we have a surplus, we could provide grants and perhaps be a broker for deals,” he said.
Grand Junction, which has had a DDA for more than 20 years, has been successful in brokering deals by buying properties, fixing them up, and turning them around for a profit, Brown said.
“Once we can achieve a steady income, we can go to banks and float a bond issue, and then with that infusion, have the kind of capital we can work with,” Brown said. “We can put that into projects and when this feedback system starts to work, the more projects we can do, but the key is sustainable funding. If we have sustainable funding, we have insulation from economic currents.”
But it’s those current economic currents that concern some, like Michael Hudson, who owns several properties across Townsend Avenue on West Main Street.
Hudson said he appreciates the concept of a DDA for East Main Street, but with the exception of a liquor store there are few retail outlets on his stretch of West Main Street.
“It’s fine for the old part of town, but I feel the district is too big,” he said. “Nobody’s going to stroll down there (West Main Street) and it’s not going to work that way.”
But people just might stroll down West Main Street one day, said DDA steering committee member Ralph Walchle, and is one of the reasons the district extends to the river, which borders Cerise Park.
Walchle said the recent city council appointment of a citizens committee to study the river corridor could create recreational development and bring new life to that area of West Main St.
“But if the part right downtown dies, his will die too,” Walchle said.
Hudson also complained that it’s too much money to ask of property owners in these hard times.
“They don’t expect to have any cash flow for five years, and meanwhile I’ve got to pay and pay and pay and I won’t get anything out of it,” he said.
But Walchle said it’s because of hard economic times that something needs to be done now, and Montrose is the largest town in the state that doesn’t have a DDA.
“I’m in the top 10 list as far of the amount of money I will invest in the DDA… and the money I’m putting in over a 30-year period will pay big dividends,” he said.
Others like Hudson are opposed to the new DDA, but several who were contacted didn’t want to go on record “because this is a small town,” one property owner said.
Others, like Julia Crippin of Crippin Funeral Home, at 802 East Main St., said she isn’t sure how she will vote and wasn’t able to attend the community meetings.
Ricky DaLee, owner of DaLee Salon & Spa at 542 East Main St., said she also doesn’t know enough about the issue and is undecided at this time.
But attorney Dennis Devor, whose office is at 130 North Park Ave., said he is very much in favor of establishing a DDA, even though he won’t be able to vote because he’s slightly out of the proposed district.
“This downtown community desperately needs some movement to allow it to be a viable downtown,” he said.
Joel Evans, of Edward Jones at 245 S. Cascade Ave., hasn’t decided how he’ll vote – but that having a DDA is a good idea.
“Downtown is critical to our community, and whether you actually have a business downtown is not important,” he said. “It’s our way of life.”
Kendra Morrow, owner of Canyon Creek Bed & Breakfast at 820 East Main St., said downtown is “the heartbeat” of the community.
“I think the DDA will add to that community feel and it’s something we should have done a long time ago,” she said.
Tony Sanchez of Chuck’s Glass at 312 North First St. is working to get people to vote for the proposal, based on Grand Junction’s success. “We need to get it going,” he said, of the program.
Another reason proponents want a DDA approved now are the new possibilities for downtown development since the city convinced the Colorado Department of Transportation to move a portion of U.S. Highway 50 from Main Street and divert it to San Juan Avenue.
That was a big impetus, Walchle said, but the main reason is that taking steps now can prevent more hard times in the future for downtown Montrose, and he points to the success of the DDA in Fort Collins.
“When I was in college in Fort Collins the deterioration had started and you needed three big friends and a gun to go downtown after dark,” he said. “Now it’s a thriving place.”