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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Major Changes with the Davis Downtown Business Association

The Davis Downtown Business Association (DDBA) recently announced that they would no longer be accepting supplemental money from the City of Davis. What this means is that while the city would still collect the assessment fees for the DDBA from its membership, it would not supplement that money with approximately $66,000. In the meantime, the DDBA would still continue to exist but it would change its priorities and goals.

One of the major changes will be the elimination of the two fulltime positions--the executive director position held by Laura Cole-Rowe and her assistant Melissa Martinez. Those positions would be combined into one position that pay considerably less. In fact, it would pay less than the assistant position that Ms. Martinez had previously earned.

Why all of these changes? Most of this stems from the fallout from the Target election. The DDBA had taken a neutral position on Target since its membership and the board were both split. There were two board members who were strongly No on K but they never pushed the board to adopt a position. When Target passed there was considerable blame that went around in some of the merchant communities that the DDBA had not done more--despite the fact that no one really asked it to do more--certainly not the merchants who were later complaining.

As a result of the Target passage, several merchants got together and created a 14-point memo that they used to approach the board of the DDBA. One of these 14 points was not to accept city money. In response, the board created the Task Force for examining various concerns, making recommendations, and eventually helping to reorganize the entire DDBA structure.

In the meantime, several of these merchants got together and founded DIMA (Davis Independent Merchants Association). The members of DIMA would send out surveys. Some have suggested that the membership of DIMA was inflated by the leadership and that everyone who had taken a stand against Measure K had become a member of DIMA whether they were aware of it or not.

Others have complained that DIMA and this organizational effort should have taken place before the Measure K vote and had those resources been turned toward defeating Measure K, the merchants would have been in a far better and stronger position. In essence, these businesses and merchants responded too late to the Measure K threat and did not provide the No on K campaign with enough valuable resources and help until very late in the election. Had this help come earlier, the narrow victory by Measure K could have been prevented.

However, the blame here was placed on the DDBA and its reliance on city money rather than on other aspects.

One key question is whether city money influences policy? The answer to that appears to be yes. But on the other hand, the city never said anything to the DDBA about Target. Nevertheless, some of the membership did not want to accept money from a city that supports peripheral and big box development.

In any case, there was a strong move afoot to separate the DDBA from city money. If one looks around the state, most of these organizations in fact take city funding and form partnerships with the city. Davis is one of the few that did not have a big box. As several have suggested a big box is coming--for better or for worse--the next question should have been how to get money to help the downtown adapt and survive.

The Task Force would meet from January through February talking about the mission, the values, and how the downtown becomes "extraordinary." Many of the things that were highlighted by this task force, in fact the DDBA had been doing for many years. Things like downtown vision, parking, events and marketing were things that were already happening.

The process was downsized from six committees to three. Their goal was to center it down to "grassroots" and why the DDBA was formed 20 years ago--to help the merchants. Of course others have pointed out that there is a misconception that merchants are at the majority of everything, when in fact, they are only a small minority of all the businesses in the downtown.

The Task Force looked long and hard exactly at what staff was doing and began nitpicking as to what they should do. It is not clear that either the Task Force or the Board realized that the consequence from not taking city money would mean that the paid staff would be gone. However, in the end, by a series of one-vote margins, the board ended up approving policy that would lead to the elimination of their two full-time staff positions and place the policy into the hands of three committees.

At an organizational meeting last week, DDBA President Maria Ogrydziak, spoke repeatedly about making Davis an "extraordinary destination" and that they had high hopes and was sure that they can reach these incredible goals. Moreover she was certain they are really on an incredible path here.

The three committees are the committee on downtown visions and community relations, committee on marketing and events, and the committee on parking. Again these are tasks and goals that were previously achieved with the help of two full-time staffers and now placed into the jurisdiction of three committees made up of volunteers who are downtown merchants.

However, there was no talk at this meeting as to how they would transition from paid staff to volunteers. There was no talk about who would take over the day-to-day roles that previously two paid staffers had performed. The meeting was heavy on rhetoric, but very light on substance and there was no discussion whatsoever on the big issues or the daunting task faced by the board and the organization.

At a city council meeting the same night, last Tuesday, the city council would press some of the concerns that were not raised on their own. Finally they began to address concerns about how these activities would occur without staff resources. The answer they provided is that they are looking toward membership to take on some of that burden. They are going through a transition period and more of the responsibilities should be shouldered amongst the members themselves.

They were asked what if they do not take up these responsibilities? Ogrydziak's answer was that they were convinced, knowing the people involved in this, that it will succeed.

Councilmember Souza however made the crucial point that right now there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm toward this move, but over time that will wane and fewer people will be involved in such efforts.

At the core, it is difficult to believe that volunteer committees can replace the work of two full-time paid staffers. There is a reason that organizations of this sort hire paid staffers and it has everything to do with the concerns that Souza laid out.

In the end, the city may have to take up some of the slack for the events that the DDBA used to put on. One event that has already gone by the wayside at least for this year is Davisfest. That event cost $44,000. Souza and others expressed regret that this event would not continue because it had the potential to become a signature event that would draw people regionally to Davis' downtown.

The DDBA is convinced that they can still have an extraordinary downtown even with one-third of the resources and without two fulltime staffers. But color me skeptical on this point, I think they are going to miss their paid staff a lot more than they think and not just from the standpoint of putting on major events and activities but also in terms of the day-to-day ministerial tasks that were performed by staff and that made the downtown a lively and special place to be for many Davis residents and visitors.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting