Momentum grows for business improvement district—in Friday Harbor

By Steve Wehrly/Journal reporter

“I have not had one business owner say no to my petition to the town council,” Ed Williams said of his campaign to create a business improvement area in Friday Harbor. Business improvement areas, sometimes called business improvement districts, are authorized under state law and created by local ordinance, which is why Williams is asking fellow business owners to sign his petition.

So far, Williams said, 79 business owners in Friday Harbor have signed the petition. Among the supporters: Bob Wingate of the Big Store and the Little Store, Joe Blankenship of the Front Line Call Center, Steve Buck of Coldwell-Banker, local entrepreneur Charles Thomas, Jim Hooper, president of the Economic Development Council, and Greg Zervas, owner of Hillside House B&B.

Friday Harbor Mayor Carrie Lacher, town Councilman Steve Hushebeck and County Councilman Rich Peterson have voiced support for the idea. Lacher welcomes the idea: “Business owners need a group like this to represent them before the town council.”

Hushebeck also supports the idea, but advises that supporters, “must do their homework” before asking the Town Council to approve creation of the improvement district.

Some local business owners are not so sure. “I thinks it’s probably a good idea,” Mike Malouf of Clipper Ship barber said. Still, he said that he would like to know how the money will be spent before signing the petition.

Improvement districts are typically funded by adding a fee onto business licenses of all businesses inside its boundaries, in this case Friday Harbor. These funds can be used to finance a wide variety of local improvements and activities, including street beautification, holiday decorations, promotion of public events, retail trade activities, and even acquisition and maintenance of parking facilities.

Local supporters say a $100 surcharge on all of the 482 business licenses in town could fund projects such as tourist information kiosks and signage, better and more attractive lighting downtown, and general beautification.

Business improvement districts may be a new idea in Friday Harbor, but not across the state.

More than 1,100 exist in Washington, most notably in Leavenworth, where a business improvement district fostered an extensive remake of the town into a Bavarian alpine village. Poulsbo, Port Angeles and Seattle’s International District also have active improvement areas.

Williams, owner of the San Juan Hotshop and Flavor Emporium on Spring Street, leads the informal steering committee of 33 Friday Harbor business owners promoting a petition that asks the town council to create an improvement district, which, under state law, would be a non-profit corporation. The council would later ratify a funding and operating plan, if it chooses to establish the district.

Close to 100 business and government leaders have participated in two meetings to debate the pros and cons of creating the district. Gordy Peterson was one of several business owners who peppered members of the steering committee with questions at latest meeting and, along with others, remains undecided.

Williams said the steering committee plans for more meetings and more outreach to the business community.

“We need more than half the businesses in town supporting the idea before the town council will approve creation of the business improvement area,” Williams said a week ago, Wednesday.  “Our group can have a strong business voice in town if we work together to make it happen,” he said.