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Investment planLancaster's DID prepares for future

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Lancaster's Downtown Investment District Authority Clean Team is staffed by Chester County-based Service Group Inc. Program director James Jackson, left, and John Smith of the Clean Team make their morning rounds on May 5. Photo/Amy Spangler
Lancaster's Downtown Investment District Authority Clean Team is staffed by Chester County-based Service Group Inc. Program director James Jackson, left, and John Smith of the Clean Team make their morning rounds on May 5. Photo/Amy Spangler

A downtown organization supporting business and property owners in Lancaster is gearing up to approve its next strategic plan.

The Downtown Investment District Authority, or DID, is made up of about 325 property owners who voluntarily pay an assessment fee to receive three main services: sidewalk sweeping; bike ambassadors, which provide information and security; and marketing support to downtown businesses.

The authority's previous plan will expire at the end of the year. In the past decade, the organization has renewed six-year plans, but the next drafted plan is for two years and four months.

There are several reasons for the proposed shorter plan term, according to the draft.

First, Lancaster has experienced economic growth in the past few years, and as the dynamic environment is poised to continue, it's difficult to predict what the needs of property owners will be in a longer term plan, board members said.

"Before we have a knee-jerk reaction without really knowing where we are going, we went with 2.3 years so we didn't have to figure out what five years meant … the city is organically growing, though this economic climate is still not good," said Jim Wagner, senior vice president for Lancaster-based Fulton Bank and board chairman for the DID.

The DID also recognizes that many within its borders are small business owners, and until the economy stabilizes it would be challenging if the assessment fee for the DID increased significantly, according to the draft plan.

The organization convened a Renewal Task Force, which defined some areas for possible changes to the DID's services and fees. However, the leadership feels the opportunities need to be researched more and feedback collected from inside and outside of the DID, according to the plan. The two-plus year duration of the draft plan allows for such investigation.

Lastly, the upcoming plan is set to coincide with the DID's fiscal year, which runs from May 1 to April 30.

"The DID was founded by a group of business leaders in the early '90s who wanted to be focused on downtown," said Lisa Riggs, outgoing president of the James Street Improvement District. James Street has managed the DID since 2007.

Small business owners partnered with several property owners in 1992 to launch the DID, with plans approved by Lancaster City Council, she said.

Per the drafted plan, the DID would maintain its core services, she said.

About a third of the yearly budget, $142,000, will go toward its bicycle ambassadors, according to the plan.

"They're trained to do three core aspects," Riggs said. "First, as a downtown ambassador — to be visible and available to those needing help or directions."

They also patrol public areas, keeping downtown more secure and reporting any maintenance issues to the proper follow-up authority, she said. And third, the ambassadors are trained to assist first responders in emergency situations, such as directing traffic, she said.

The ambassadors work seven days a week and are contracted through West Hempfield Township, Lancaster County-based AlliedBarton Security Services, she said.

Another service that will be maintained probably has the biggest impact of the DID, Riggs said.

The DID has a sidewalk sweeping crew staffed by Chester County-based Service Group Inc. sweeping downtown blocks six days a week. Their territory is highly trafficked areas with a heavy tree canopy, she said. The sweeping also is about one-third of the DID's budget, at almost $125,000.

"The sweeping of the sidewalks is a big help. There's a lot of litter and a lot of people in this district," said Kenneth Hammel, founder and principal of Lancaster-based Hammel Associates Architects, which has headquarters on North Queen Street.

The nonprofit also supports marketing for downtown businesses at about $8,000 per year, she said. The DID runs a gift certificate program for businesses, which brings in about $18,000 annually, she said.

The rest of the annual budget goes toward administrative and legal costs, totaling about $105,000.

Through assessments, late fees and donations from nontaxable entities, the DID's budget is about $401,000 for fiscal year 2013/14, according to the drafted plan.

While these services will continue if the draft plan is approved, some significant changes are being considered for the future.

One of those is to move the boundaries of the DID. The original boundaries are somewhat random, depending on what property owners wanted to participate at the time in paying the assessment fees to receive services, Riggs said.

In some cases, that means one side of the street might have sidewalks swept but not the other side, she said.

The organization will have conversations with property owners around the downtown area to see if there's an interest, she said.

"Best-case scenario is people opting in, feeling the added services are well worth the cost," though the DID will have to make sure it has enough resources to cover a larger area if many property owners are interested, Riggs said.

The assessment fee is set at a millage rate of 2.23 for fiscal year 2012-13, which is about $335 annually for a property valued at $150,000.

Another area the DID will approach in the next couple of years is increased contributions from tax-exempt properties, which make up about 13 percent of its geography, according to the draft plan.

In the past, as much as $80,000 was solicited from such properties, including county, religious and nonprofit organizations. That number has dipped to about $55,000 and may drop even further with the economic climate, DID leadership said.

"The services benefit all property owners in the area," Riggs said.

A third area for more research is whether or not the DID should participate fiscally to operate surveillance cameras for the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition.

The DID shouldn't be responsible for paying for surveillance cameras, Hammel said. Property owners are already paying via their city and county taxes for the cameras, and if the DID also were to support the initiative, people would be paying three times, he said.

The draft plan will be reviewed by the 11-member board on May 23 and finalized. Several formal steps then follow, including mailing the plan to DID property owners, holding a public hearing to present the plan and a 45-day review period. Approval by the city council will be sought in the fall.

Bicycle Ambassadors' impact:

• Providing directions 1,045 times in 2011.

• Assisting emergency personnel 150 times from 2007 through 2011.

• Contacting PPL 37 times in the past two years for street light replacements.

• Making 300 business checks each week on average in 2011.

• Identifying and often helping to remove graffiti 34 times in the first half of fiscal year 2011-12.

Sidewalk sweeping impact in 2011:

• Swept 2,500 pounds of trash on average each month.

• Collected 16,000 pounds of leaves from September through December.

• Removed 350 instances of graffiti or stickers.

• Cleared snow from curbs at intersections on 14 days

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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