BY JAIMY LEE
The competitive nature of franchises and shopping malls makes it difficult to thrive, let alone survive, in the small-business world , more than half of small businesses don’t even make it to the five-year mark.
But in San Diego , a region that has set a pattern of putting small businesses first when compared to the rest of the nation , Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs, are making life easier for small businesses.
The 18 BIDs in San Diego County act as liaisons with city officials, community groups and residents while assisting small-business owners with parking issues, redevelopment concerns, special events hosting and business promotion, said Jim Schneider, executive director for the Adams Avenue BID.
Of the more than 70,000 small businesses established throughout the county, between 16,000 and 18,000 are represented by BIDs, including districts as small as Little Italy and as large as Pacific Beach.
The BIDs function as nonprofit organizations but are run as businesses, usually with a full-time executive director and assistant, Schneider said.
Small businesses join for a nominal fee, ranging from $35 in an older area like North Park to more than $100 in the trendy Gaslamp Quarter. Additional revenue is generated by the BIDs through various grants and city allocations.
A Long History
The BID program was started in San Diego around 25 years ago.
In 1993, BID representatives decided to take another step toward helping local small-business owners. The Business Improvement District Council, or BIDC, was incorporated in August of that year. The purpose of the council was to have monthly meetings for the BID representatives to share ideas and work together for community events like street fairs.
“These are common issues that have a big impact,” Schneider said. “We can identify all these major issues.”
Diana Spyridonidis, BIDC chief executive officer, said the arrival of shopping centers in districts like Mission Valley in the late ’70s contributed to the financial struggle of urban business centers such as North Park and Hillcrest.
For Schneider and Spyridonidis, it’s no surprise that small businesses struggle just to run successfully. Few owners have time to petition their city councils regarding legislation that might affect them or strategize on issues such as parking solutions in overcrowded communities.
“There’s a tight tie between the city and the BIDs,” Schneider said. “We are contracted by the city but we are not a city agency.”
San Diego is also the only city in California that has an Office of Small Business run by the U.S. Small Business Administration , a fact that Schneider said surprised him when he moved to the West Coast from Pittsburgh.
Health Care Savings
The BIDC decided to make another national first when it started City Care Healthcare, a benefits program that all BID businesses can join. With the businesses falling under one umbrella, the program was able to negotiate less expensive health benefits. In 2003, more than 700 groups signed up.
“It’s been great for small businesses,” said Spyridonidis. “We expect to see some things happen with City Care Healthcare.”
Most of the BID businesses will agree that cooperative advertising has been one of the biggest benefits. Instead of each business paying for a half-page ad, a BID will sometimes purchase it, and five to six businesses can be featured at a portion of the price apiece.
Peggy Novick, owner of A La Fran & #231;aise caf & #233; and bakery, called the Adams Avenue BID “a remarkable help.”
A La Fran & #231;aise, located on Adams Avenue, relocated from Mission Hills earlier this year. The caf & #233; has 15 employees and had sales of about $450,000 in 2005. This year, Novick said she expects to see sales increase by $100,000.
Not only has Novick had the opportunity to meet other owners in the area, she has also been featured in the BID’s weekly newsletter. She is currently working to obtain a beer and wine license through an Alcoholic Beverage Control consultant, but she said she could have used the BID for assistance if needed.
“It’s nice to know they’re there for support,” she said. “They’ve been offering to help and spreading the word.”
Strong Political Voice
Susan James has been a member of the Ocean Beach BID since it was organized in that city more than 20 years ago. She and her three business partners run James Gang Graphics, a 30-year-old business located on Bacon Street.
James Gang Graphics has eight employees and generated revenues of between $800,000 to $900,000 last year. James expects the same sales figure for 2006.
“It’s nice to have that contact that knows everyone,” she said. “We get better rates with advertising and they do a directory (of all local businesses) They’re up on city politics which is very helpful.”
On Nov. 28, a retail ordinance is expected to go before the San Diego City Council and BID representatives will attend on behalf of the small-business owners, Spyridonidis said.
And in past years, the BIDs have been successful in negotiating with city and state officials to help small businesses. In Old Town , a neighborhood where parking can be scarce on a Friday night , the BID worked out an agreement with Caltrans that allows free use of its parking lot after 5 p.m.
BIDs can also provide assistance to small businesses for trash pickup, landscaping, graffiti cleanup and sidewalk sweeping as part of their goal for community improvement. The BIDC offers an online business directory of the more than 70,000 small businesses in San Diego County.
Gary Tillery, owner of Tire Depot on Adams Avenue, joined the local BID when he opened his business 21 years ago. He spent years trying to get the city to repair the sidewalk outside his shop but it wasn’t until the local BID got involved that progress was made.
“At first, I was just too busy trying to build my business,” he said. “But I was worried about liability because the sidewalk was in utter disrepair.”
After the BID stepped in, the sidewalk was replaced section by section by the city, and in return, Tillery also improved the look of his own building. His tire store now has seven employees and generated $1 million in gross sales in 2005.
“Now the whole corner has turned around,” he said. “Everyone gains by it and it’s nice to see someone in your corner. It’s not just another shopping mall. You feel a sense of community.”
Jaimy Lee is a San Diego-based freelance writer.