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Downtown's Davids Vs. Goliaths 

Small-business owners don't want to pay more for what they aren't happy getting anyway

click to enlarge HEATHER MULL

Downtown's business district has always been dominated by the big boys who own the banks and the high-rise buildings. Now a group of small-business owners is trying to fight a proposed increase in real-estate fees favored by such prominent players as PNC and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Nearly 100 small-business owners in Downtown have signed a petition to oppose an increase in levies imposed by Downtown's business improvement district (BID), established in 1997 to advocate for central-city businesses and serve property owners with a variety of programs, such as street beautification.

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which runs the Downtown BID, went before city council Oct. 25 to propose upping its levies by 25 percent over the next five years.

"We're at the bone," said partnership President and CEO Mike Edwards.

"Little guys have no say," counters Jerry Schiller, of Penn Hills. Schiller, along with seven family members, owns two properties at the corner of Wood Street and Forbes Avenue that house eight mom-and-pop businesses, including a barbershop, a shoe-repair shop and a jewelry store. Walking Downtown blocks for a day-and-a-half in early October, Schiller says he garnered 97 signatures from business- and property-owners on a petition to oppose the hike, representing about 45 properties subject to the levy.

"Our tenants stuck it out," Schiller says of the recent failed or stalled Downtown redevelopment plans. "No one seems to be paying attention to them. It's a racket."

Edwards emphasized that additional levies are crucial to support new services such as the Safety Ambassadors program, which beginning this summer put nine uniformed people on Downtown's streets to address what the partnership called "quality-of-life" issues, including graffiti and panhandling. (See "Panhandling Battle -- Unsubtle Diplomacy," News Briefs, Aug. 16.)

The few small-business owners attending the Oct. 25 hearing criticized the Ambassadors program, which is projected to cost $300,000 a year, saying its workers contributed nothing in the way of business improvement.

The partnership is also seeking to renew the BID designation, which expires by the end of the year, for another five years. City Councilors Doug Shields and Jeffrey Koch, the only two members who stayed through the hearing, said they support the BID but are concerned about the impact of the levy hike on small businesses. The council bill calls for simultaneous approval of the renewal and the levy increase. A vote is scheduled for Nov. 6.

At the council hearing, Nancy Hart, the partnership's vice president of finance and development, submitted documentation to show that about 50 owners of 140 properties supported the hike. Their properties represent exactly 51 percent of Downtown's commercial property value, which together makes them the majority, according to state BID ordinance.

That's fair, Hart told CP afterward, because the larger property owners pay the greater amount in levies.

Partnership officials hope to jack up the levies to $1.475 million by 2011 from the current cap of $1.18 million, which was fixed circa 2000 to prevent the partnership from receiving a windfall during real-estate reassessments. Just a little more than one-third of the partnership's 2006 operating budget is funded by the levies; the balance is covered by a patchwork of private donations, foundation money and membership fees.

No business owners present at the hearing recommended abolishing the BID, but they have one suggestion for partnership officials. As Jack Cohen, owner of S.W. Randall toy store on Smithfield Street, put it: "They have to learn to live with their budget, just as the business owners [do]."

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