Fifth Avenue South business taxing district finding success a year later

The Fifth Avenue South business improvement district had its first meeting in March with an interim board and hired its executive director, Lise Sundrla, after a national search in June. The district achieved 501(c3) status in November.

On Monday, Sundrla unveiled a new logo and website design to committee members in the district. A new marketing campaign launches early next year along with a complete business directory and map that will be posted on the street and printed on pamphlets.

— A decade ago, shoe store owner Bob Baker found Fifth Avenue South unappealing as a business owner.

“We were one of the first tenants in our new building, but before that I don’t think I would have given you a nickel to be on the street,” said Baker, who decided to relocate Bob Baker Shoes after Naples hired an outside consultant to make recommendations for major improvement in the city’s shopping district.

Still, property owners and their tenants struggled to form a cohesive image for the avenue many Naples visitors viewed as a focal point in the city. Membership to the Downtown Naples Association was voluntary and not all businesses were a part.

Then in 2008 after two years and some convincing, the city and those with a stake in the street agreed to the formation of a self-taxing district that now spans Fifth Avenue South with mandatory membership for the roughly 40 property owners.

It took two years to bring the concept to fruition but business owners and city officials now say Fifth Avenue South is brighter, busier and more beautiful since the creation of a Business Improvement District a year ago.

“The meetings have been wonderful, with good turnout, good presentations,” Baker said. “It’s great because the Fifth Avenue South Association and the chamber working separately wasn’t working. There was a lack of communication.”

The association dissolved with the creation of the business improvement district last year. The district had its first meeting in March with an interim board and hired its executive director, Lise Sundrla, after a national search in June. The district achieved 501(c3) status in November.

On Monday, Sundrla unveiled a new logo and website design to committee members in the district. A new marketing campaign launches early next year along with a complete business directory and map that will be posted on the street and printed on pamphlets. Sundrla said there’s also talk of a global gift card that shoppers could spend at any location on the street.

Sundrla has been the driving force behind increasing momentum on the street, said President Lou Vlasho, longtime owner of Vergina on Fifth Avenue South.

“Even the mayor has said she’s doing a wonderful job,” he said.

Nicola Bunnett works at the Native Visions gallery on Fifth Avenue South, and said increased traffic has generated renewed interest in her store.

“There’s more people and more excitement, and maybe they’re not buying, but it just keeps bringing people back,” Bunnett said. “The street is beautiful. We have new lights, repaved streets with parking, redone landscaping. Everything’s more conducive.”

Rani Richardson owns Random Acts of Art, also on Fifth Avenue South. As a block leader for the district, she takes suggestions and concerns from other tenants to the regular meetings.

“I’ve heard a mix from people,” she said. “I think people that feel the events are working feel it’s totally worth it. And people still struggling day-to-day are not happy about that extra bill.”

Businesses are charged $2 per $1,000 of taxable value on the 69 properties in the district, which stretches from Ninth Street South to Third Street South and Eighth Avenue South to Fourth Avenue South. The district generated $281,000 in its first year, which the city collected for them.

The district operates independently from city staff, but Mayor Bill Barnett said he’s impressed with what it’s accomplished in a year.

“I think they’re phenomenal,” he said. “They’ve done so much in so little time.”

“We’ve done a lot of things this year, but on the other side, we’re just getting started,” said Lou Vlasho, longtime owner of Vergina on Fifth Avenue South. “2012 is going to be a big year.”

Vlasho said the fees raised by the district are important, but engaging business owners is even more crucial. Input surveys for business and property owners as well as community members have fueled much of the decision-making in the group so far.

“We realize the community has a stake in what happens on Fifth Avenue,” Vlasho said.

An events committee of 18 planned the Halloween and Christmas events this year with musicians staged at key points along the street. Those events were some of the most successful the street has seen, Vlasho and Sundrla said.

“People kept telling me Halloween was their favorite, but then we had the Christmas parade,” Sundrla said.

The street will continue to host weekly Evenings on Fifth the second Thursday of each month, and twice a month during season. Sundrla has plans to bring back gallery walks for the many art vendors on the street. About $80,000 is set aside for event planning through the district.

Sundrla said increased traffic and interest in the street will in turn bring more vendors and tenants. Two years ago, about 20 percent of the properties on the street were vacant, Vlasho said. Now, two properties are up for rent. Two restaurants will open on the street next year, and a cupcake shop opened last week.

“We’ve done a lot of things this year, but on the other side, we’re just getting started,” Vlasho said. “2012 is going to be a big year.”

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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