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Downtown tax district makes its case for renewal

Downtown St. Louis,  looking east
File photo / Brent Jones
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St. Louis Public Radio
Downtown St. Louis has faced significant challenges this year.

For 22 years, downtown St. Louis property owners have voluntarily paid into a special taxing district that provides security and other enhancements not covered by city budgets — making it one of the first community improvement districts in Missouri. But in the last year, the Downtown St. Louis Community Improvement District has found itself facing major challenges even beyond the difficulties the pandemic has inflicted on downtown.

In January, the district was spun off from its longtime parent organization, Downtown St. Louis Inc., which had been dissolved as part of the civic organization shakeup surrounding the creation of Greater St. Louis Inc. Even then, the clock was ticking: Absent reauthorization from the property owners who fund its roughly $3.1 million in annual revenue, the CID was set to dissolve by year’s end. As CID leaders struggled to get enough signatures, a rival group formed, seeking to take over operations (and revenue).

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Downtown St. Louis CID
Kelli McCrary has worked for the downtown CID for five years and been its director for one.

Last week, the original CID finally turned in its signatures. Kelli McCrary, executive director of the district, said she feels confident there are
enough.

“We wouldn't be at the position we're in right now if we did not have the support of many of the stakeholders in the downtown community, both large and small businesses, residents, as well as stakeholders, employees and visitors,” she said. “But it's the property owners who made the decision to sign the petition.” She noted that the district needed the support of a plurality of property owners and also hit majority support based on property valuations. “We have met those goals. And I'm still confident that we will continue forward.”

Les Sterman, president of the rival group seeking to block the district’s renewal, said his group is planning to challenge the signatures. It's also filed a lawsuit, arguing that its mandate has already expired.

Property owners don’t mind paying the assessments, Sterman said. They just don’t think the CID has been a good steward of the money.

He said it comes down to a philosophical question.

“What do you do, for example, to make downtown safer? Frankly, the CID’s approach to that is to spend a lot of money on secondary police patrols, which really don't accomplish very much. Because those secondary cops don't make traffic stops, they don't make arrests. They, for the most part, are not seeing much of downtown.” He’d like to see the district proactively tackle issues like panhandling and homelessness and also take on problem properties.

McCrary said it’s the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department that has stopped its security officers from handling traffic stops (while the officers are uniformed police, the department doesn’t want them making such stops while working their side job). She also defended the district’s attention to nuisance properties.

'What do you do to make downtown safer?'
Listen to Kelli McCrary on St. Louis on the Air

“We work with the city divisions that have the executive decision makers, to inform them of what we're seeing, inform them of what we're hearing, and allow them to do their job, which is investigate, if they have a reason to,” she said.

She said downtown would be best served by reauthorization of the existing district.

“It's very difficult to start anew, which is why we are embracing the position of wanting to listen to those who have realistic and reasonable ideas for change,” she said.

Of property owners who have offered to pay for some services individually if the CID is not renewed, buying time for a new one to be set up, McCrary said: “To piecemeal a community improvement district does not seem very viable. It's not a very viable option.

“And I say that because we're 20 years into this. I'm almost five years into being the lead of this community improvement district. And I've developed extensive working relationships with our partners, with our stakeholders who are willing. And if that goes away, piecemeal will not be the answer to what this community needs as a whole.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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