The Charlottesville City Council on Monday voted, 3-1, to award a one-time grant of $75,000 to support marketing efforts by the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville. Mayor Nikuyah Walker voted against the resolution, while Councilor Wes Bellamy was absent.
City Councilor Kathy Galvin said the grant would help stores and restaurants on the Downtown Mall to rebound from lost business resulting from the white supremacist rally and deadly car attack of August 12, 2017; and to compete with shopping centers in Albemarle County.
In September 2017, Charlottesville’s sales tax revenues decreased by 12 percent compared with the previous September, while meals tax revenues were down 11 percent. Business activity in the final quarter of 2017 was about even with that period of 2016.
“This is a very extenuating circumstance that is colliding with changes in the county,” Galvin said. “We need to make [downtown businesses] competitive and strong again.”
The City Council gave DBAC a similar marketing grant of $50,000 in 2008 to counter the impact of rebricking work on the Downtown Mall, and another $30,000 grant in September 2017 for holiday season marketing efforts. The downtown businesses were required to match these grants dollar-for-dollar with cash contributions or in-kind services.
On Monday, the City Council capped DBAC’s required match for the $75,000 grant at $30,000. Galvin said that total was based on what DBAC had been able to contribute in the past.
“I think a lower level [match] would make sense because of the situation we find ourselves in,” said City Manager Maurice Jones. “I think if this was going to happen on a regular basis, we would be in a different place.”
Walker said DBAC should still be required to match the grant in full.
“If this is something that they need, why wouldn’t they match it dollar for dollar?” Walker said.
DBAC previously submitted a $250,000 funding request for fiscal 2019 to pay for marketing, staff and office space and improvements to the Downtown Mall. Only the $75,000 marketing grant is included in Jones’ proposed budget.
A Feb. 22 memo from Charlottesville’s Office of Economic Development said some Downtown Mall improvements requested by DBAC, including security cameras, additional lighting and a public restroom, had already been added to the city’s Capital Improvement Program.
It also said the city has increased police presence on the Downtown Mall by 40 percent since August 12.
Walker said the growth of Albemarle County retail destinations, such as the Shops at Stonefield and 5th Street Station, contributed more to Charlottesville’s recent economic slowdown than concerns about public safety.
“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the reasons behind some of the [DBAC] requests, and saying the events of the summer were the cause for it, when people were back at the farmer’s market the next week [after August 12], just a block over,” Walker said. “If clients are doing business elsewhere, is that because of the summer, or because other places are more enticing to them?”
“I would argue the other places are much more exclusive,” said Galvin. “When you look at Stonefield, that’s all private property. They can tell anybody they want to get off their property. … We are truly public space on the Downtown Mall.”
Galvin said that the Downtown Mall makes up just one percent of Charlottesville’s land area, but generates roughly 16 percent of the city’s tax revenue.
“It is a major generator of revenue for the city on a very small ‘postage stamp’ of land,” Galvin said.
City Councilor Heather Hill asked how prescriptive the city government could be in guiding DBAC’s use of grant funding.
“[The city] owns the downtown area, and I want to support these businesses,” Hill said. “But I also am sensitive to the fact that there are certain types of events that we should be partnering with them to increase diversity of those who are frequenting the Downtown Mall.”
Jason Ness, business development manager for the city of Charlottesville, said DBAC will be required to submit a detailed calendar of events and a marketing plan.
“We would work on performance metrics and goals for all these events and follow up with them after each significant spend to see how the event went, and provide feedback,” said Ness.
Last fall, DBAC organized a series of weekly classes on art, music, yoga and other activities in Emancipation Park. DBAC Chairwoman Joan Fenton said the association would use some of its grant funding publicize the Arts in the Park series later this year.
“We feel like these classes have the ability to reach everyone in the community,” Fenton said.
Fenton said DBAC hoped to convince the community that the use of public funds to support local businesses is not antithetical to advancing social justice.
“When we make more money, we are the ones who pay more salaries. We are not like a big corporation,” Fenton said. “[DBAC’s] membership has doubled since this summer, partly because of concerns about the economy, but also about caring about the community.”
Galvin said DBAC should direct “aggressive outreach and partnership” efforts towards low-wealth communities like Friendship Court.
“There is now an understanding, more so than ever before, that we have to do overt outreach to neighbors to the south of the Downtown Mall who do not feel comfortable on the mall,” Galvin said.
“I think this is an opportunity to redress the issues that have communicated to us about how the Downtown Mall has not been… as income-diverse for us as we would like,” she said.