To some, downtown Bakersfield is a dirty, blighted example of underinvestment.
Take a stroll down throughout the area and you’ll find graffiti, plywood propped up in place of shattered pane glass windows smashed by vandals and a population of homeless people.
City officials can only do so much to keep the area clean and safe. It has recently assigned three new officers to patrol the area, and there’s an existing team of privately-funded and volunteer crews who scrape gum and pick up litter, but it’s not enough, downtown property owners say.
“There’s still a perception that you can’t go downtown because you’ll get harassed, or because it’s dirty. That image, right or wrong, has to change,” said Donna Sylvester, a former Bakersfield City redevelopment director who retired in 2012, but remains involved in the revitalization of downtown.
So property owners have decided to take the matter into their own hands, plotting for more than a year to essentially tax themselves and put the proceeds — roughly $850,000 annually for five years — toward cleaning crews, security guards, marketing and advocacy for downtown tenants.
Supporters of the proposed Property-based Business Improvement District say it would help transform the area into the heartbeat of the city, attracting new businesses and revitalizing downtown’s languishing stretches. They point to other downtowns that have adopted PBIDs and are now flourishing city centers dotted with trendy restaurants, bars and retail stores.
Detractors are critical of the proposal, especially small-business owners wary that landlords will pass the cost of the assessments down to them and squeeze them out.
“If it gets too expensive, I’ll leave,” said Cynthia Price, co-owner of Blue Oak Coffee Roasting, who expressed reservations about the safety of downtown after her new business was burglarized this year. “I’m considering investing more money into my company, and if we’re not safe here, I’m not going to invest.”
Talk of creating a PBID downtown is nothing new. Property owners were considering the move in 2007 and would have done so with the aid of the state Redevelopment Agency, which provided funding to revitalize blighted areas.
The PBID and redevelopment funding together, Sylvester said, would have allowed downtown to flourish. But then the economy crashed in 2008. Then the state dissolved its Redevelopment Agencies and the funding that went along with it.
Terry Maxwell, a prominent downtown business owner and former city councilman who represented downtown, told The Californian in 2010 that the economy was too fragile, and it wasn’t the right time to impose another tax on businesses that could have led to higher rents.
Now, Andrae Gonzales, the man who unseated Maxwell in 2016, says it’s time for change. Gonzales, the executive director of the downtown business Stewards, has been working with organizers for more than a year to draw boundaries, develop plans and take it to an election among property owners. If passed, he’ll be assessed about $1,400 annually, he said.
“The bottom line of the PBID is to bring more people to the downtown area. That is the ultimate goal, and if it falls short of that, then we don’t renew it in five years,” Gonzales said. “We want more people living downtown, opening businesses downtown and hanging out downtown.”
The proposed district lines run from F Street east about one mile to Q Street, and from Truxtun Avenue as far north as 30th Street on the west side, and 24th Street on the east. It would encompass and assess every property within those boundaries, regardless of whether they’re retail, restaurant or governmental properties that don’t pay taxes. In order to form, organizers would need to secure 50 percent plus one vote from property owners. Their votes are weighted based on how much square footage they own, Sylvester said.
There are 441 owners in the district who hold 722 properties worth more than $828 million. (Full disclosure: The Bakersfield Californian’s property is listed among the PBID's top 25 largest, making up 0.8 percent of the district.)
The largest property owner, nonprofit Adventist Health Bakersfield, which holds more than 5 percent of the proposed district, doesn’t stand to gain a financial return on their investment like other participating property owners, but has been supportive of the proposal, said Chief Operations Officer Sam Itani.
“We are a community hospital, and we always want to be supportive of our community,” Itani said. “It’s not a financial return for us. It’s about community support. That’s the return on our investment.”
Meanwhile, Bakersfield City Manager Alan Tandy said that as a property owner, the city has not solicited its council on how to vote. The city is one of the largest downtown property owners, with about 3 percent of the district.
“It’s really a 97 percent private business decision, so we’re looking to see what the input of the owners is. We don’t want to be controlling in either direction, and will accommodate what the majority of the business people believe is the right thing to do,” Tandy said.
Another benefit of the district, Gonzales said, is gaining a uniform voice for the downtown area, which could lend it some political might.
“Property owners will have a strong voice in their local government,” Gonzales said.
Kyle Carter, whose $5 million worth of downtown holdings include the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, said that the PBID becomes more relevant as the area grows and more millennials seek to live in the city, instead of the suburbs.
“Downtown is prime right now for a resurgence,” Carter said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you can live in an environment that’s rich with amenities you can use like parks, shops and restaurants. It enriches your life. In 10 years, our city is going to look very different, and that’s why it’s so important that we take some steps today to make it a better transition.”
He envisions a bustling downtown that emphasizes old world architecture and high-rise condominiums constructed in existing buildings, like the Haberfelde.
Some may balk at the assessment fees, but it’s the price to pay to compete with modern shopping centers and malls that require leases with fees built-in to cover security and maintenance, Carter said.
“The people downtown are probably paying less rent than they could be if they went somewhere else,” Carter said.
Still, for all its benefits, Carter said the assessment will negatively affect his business. He already hires landscapers and maintenance crews to care for his properties.
“I’m not really going to get much out of it … but it creates a better community around me, and therefore, I think it’s worth doing,” Carter said, adding that it would be difficult to find any business owner that doesn’t have reservations about the fees.
“I think all of us do. I don’t want to spend another $8,000 a year. It’s not something that we want to do, but it’s time. We need to do it and make this investment in downtown,” Carter said. “If the people who are here make the investment today, it will be easier for new businesses to come down here. We’re creating a pathway, and I think the gamble is worth it. Downtown is worth it.”