BY PATRICK FOX
More than half a dozen new cities have been carved out of metro Atlanta counties in the past decade. And while the campaign for greater local control of tax dollars has grabbed most of the headlines, the business community has been mounting its own campaign for years.
Over the past 25 years, business owners have formed close to 20 metro area community improvement districts (CIDs) that collect taxes for special projects. The taxes are levied against business properties. Residential properties lying within the district do not pay the tax.
CIDs use money collected from commercial property owners to promote projects aimed at improving the business climate within their districts, projects like traffic improvements, sidewalks, landscaping and security. Most times, CID money goes toward laying the groundwork for projects – providing impact studies and design blueprints – rather than actual construction. These studies are used to nudge forward projects already under consideration by local governments.
Georgia’s first community improvement district, Cumberland CID, was formed in 1988, after the Legislature enabled Cobb County to grant a group of local businesses the authority to tax themselves.
“A group of business leaders went to the northern Virginia area and saw that they had what is typically known as ‘business improvement districts’ as a mechanism to raise funds to do infrastructure,” said Malaika Rivers, Cumberland CID executive director. “That idea was brought back here.”
Back in the 1980s, the Cumberland business community was 10 years out from opening Cumberland Mall and the area was just beginning to boom as a retail and suburban office market, Rivers said.
“The businesses recognized that transportation would be a very impactful factor on the health of this market, so they decided to be proactive at that time,” she said.
In order to advance improvements, Cumberland business leaders created the CID to raise money to help shepherd these projects to construction.
Most of the funds were used to help fund studies and design work on major road projects.
“The specific idea was to get an interchange off of I-75 to provide better access to the core of the market,” Rivers said.
Work on Cumberland Boulevard began in the mid-1990s and has since become a portal to one of the busiest commercial centers in the region.
Over the course of its existence, Cumberland CID has spent more than $100 million for similar projects, drawing close to half a billion dollars from federal, state and county governments in transportation and beautification projects. The CID estimates that by 2018, it will have invested $130 million.
The success of Cumberland soon gave rise to other business groups forming their own community improvement districts.
The North Fulton Community Improvement District formed in 2003 when a group of local developers sought to expedite a bridge replacement on Westside Parkway over Foe Killer Creek at the city limits of Roswell and Alpharetta.
“A lot of the big real estate developers in the area, including Cousins Properties, Colonial Properties, General Growth Properties (which owns North Point Mall), were very anxious to get that project moving,” said Ann Hanlon, executive director of North Fulton CID.
The project involved local, state and federal authorities, including the EPA, she said, so there were “a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” and the project was running behind schedule.
Westside Parkway was intended to be an alternative route paralleling Ga. 400 for local traffic. Many businesses and developers considered it a critical artery.
“So, the businesses banded together and formed this financing mechanism to try to affect this project,” she said. “It was really a grassroots effort, the developers and businesses saying ‘We are so ready for this bridge project to be done that we’re willing to tax ourselves and pay for it ourselves.’”
Once formed, the CID acquired some right of way, began paying for the engineering company on behalf of the city of Roswell and engaged in other creative funding efforts to kick-start the project.
“Several years later, when the city of Alpharetta needed help on the northern section of Westside Parkway, we sort of came to the rescue again to help get the project over the finish line,” Hanlon said. “We wrote a check for $789,000 to close the gap on funding.”
Westside Parkway now runs north past the new Avalon development up to Windward Parkway, allowing local traffic to avoid Ga. 400 and its regular rush-hour snags.
“Even if you lived here, Ga. 400 was the only option for most folks, even if you had to go to the grocery store,” Hanlon said. “I can say anecdotally that having Westside Parkway open has changed traffic patterns because now people have an alternate route.”
Transportation is not the only reason CIDs are formed, and nearly all do more than transportation projects.
In the early stages of the recession, Gwinnett Village CID stepped forward to pay for mowing roadsides when the county and state governments cut back on maintenance. Today, CIDs are a major part of roadside beautification projects, pouring millions of dollars into landscaping islands and exits along thoroughfares.
North Fulton CID spent $1.2 million to landscape and install stone walls to beautify the Windward Parkway exit off of Ga. 400.
North metro’s newest CID, Gateway Marietta, was formed last year to fight crime along Franklin Road, for the past 20 years one of the county’s most crime-ridden areas.
In 2013, the city of Marietta passed a $68 million redevelopment bond with all but $4 million of the funds going toward buying apartment complexes along Franklin.
So far, the city has purchased four apartment complexes and is in the process of demolishing them so the land can be sold for redevelopment, drawing businesses looking to relocate.
“The city and Cobb Chamber got together and agreed that in order for the redevelopment process to continue, we should form a CID,” said Joe Knight, executive director of Gateway CID.
The CID is working closely with the city to attract business, going north of the Town Center CID to the south of the Cumberland CID.
“Since the ‘80s, there’s been a giant gap there where there has been little if any economic development,” Knight said. “We’ve got the Braves coming in three miles to our south, we’ve got the city spending $64 million, let’s make sure that we have a group here that is fighting for this area that can capture any development that comes along, because there’s a lot of great stuff going on.”
Up until this past legislative session, CIDs in Cobb couldn’t spend any money for public safety outside their geographic boundaries. The law has since been changed and went into effect July 1.
“Over our next two meetings, we will be deciding what our focus is as far as public safety,” Knight said. “We going to be doing improved lighting because the No. 1 cost-effective way for businesses to fight crime is lighting.”
He said the CID will probably end up hiring two off-duty police officers to patrol certain parts of the CID. Talks are currently under way with the city and police department to draw up a plan.
The CID is also looking into purchasing cameras to monitor the area, but the expense of monitoring the cameras may be prohibitive, Knight said.
As the number of CIDs and other quasi-governmental entities has grown, the availability of public funds to initiate projects has become harder to come by.
“Twenty-seven years ago, when we first started doing this, the competition for scarce public funding wasn’t so great,” Cumberland CID’s Rivers said. “These days, public funding is more scarce, which means local communities have to bring more money to the table.”
Rivers said CIDs change as the markets and sub-markets change.
“Almost 30 years ago, we were an early burgeoning office market, with specific needs focused on road-building,” she said. “Now, we’re becoming a more robust and complete community, so the types of projects we invest in changes.”
The Cumberland market has seen a major influx of residents choosing to live near the commercial and office complexes, she said.
“So, building out the trails that lead into the park system has always been a primary focus of ours,” she said. “And we’re not doing it for altruistic reasons because the residents don’t come into our tax base; but those residents attract businesses, which creates a robust community.”