There’s a new schism in the contentious Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp.
A group of business owners, mostly on Jay Street, signed a petition asking the City Council not to approve the 2013 DSIC budget. In total, 41 people signed — including 17 owners, some residential tenants and a few customers who walked into the stores last week.
The DSIC board approves its budget each year, but must get final approval from the City Council. Board members told the council the proposed 2013 budget included a 4 percent fee increase, but said it would affect only the largest property owners.
But an unintended consequence of the rate increase will hit the district’s smallest businesses, the ones that rent tiny storefronts and make do with just one or two employees. Several owners signed the petition because their landlords — larger property owners who will be hit with the fee increase — warned that they might have to increase the rent to pay the fee.
“Possibly rent would go up,” said Kurt Hellijas, owner of Re-Collector.
“That’s pretty much why I did it,” he said of his decision to sign the petition.
He wasn’t alone. Fred Leger of Tattoo Blues signed for the same reason.
“Just because of my landlord,” Leger said.
They were joined by larger store owners who said they signed because they think DSIC wastes their money.
“We have nothing against the improvement district, if they do their job correctly,” said Ashok Miripuri, who owns Paisa Miser.
DSIC Executive Director Jim Salengo spent the afternoon going door to door to ask business owners why they signed the petition. Miripuri said he was frank with Salengo.
“I told him, ‘Jimmy, all of the events, you’re charging the small businesses $25, $50. The small businesses aren’t making it.’ ” he said. “I told him, ‘You need to find money somewhere else, and do something, not use it all on salaries.’ ”
DSIC was designed to collect a fee from property owners in the district and use it to improve the area. Business owners have often argued about whether the agency focuses on the Proctors area more than other parts of the district, or whether it does enough to promote retail establishments.
Some of those debates were resolved in recent years when the agency created a new, complex formula for its fee. Those with larger frontage pay more than smaller properties; those farther from Proctors pay less.
But now, some Jay Street property owners are questioning whether the agency is spending its money in the right ways.
Jay Street normally benefits from its location near Proctors, but this year, business owners said they felt ignored. There was no money in the budget for flowering baskets on their street, they said, and they had to buy their own flag holders and other accoutrements for the circus promotion that ran just before the circus came to Proctors.
After the Gazette Holiday Parade, Salengo said publicly that his workers cleaned downtown thoroughly, but Miripuri said trash cans were left overflowing on Jay Street.
While Salengo said DSIC isn’t responsible for the trash cans — that’s the city’s job — he said his workers could have “skimmed off the top” of the garbage piles and called the city for help.
“Unfortunately, the city had a city holiday that Thursday and Friday,” Salengo said.
As for the flowering baskets, Salengo said Jay Street business owners asked him for them mid-year, after the budget had been set. DSIC found basket hooks for the Jay Street poles and put baskets in the 2013 budget, but he said he told the business owners they would have to pay for their own baskets this year since those weren’t in the budget.
Miripuri and others weren’t satisfied, so they said they would finally complain. “So many years, nobody said anything,” Miripuri said. “People get tired. Enough.”
It’s not just Jay Street businesses. On Union Street, Katbird Shop owner Kathy Fitzmaurice said she signed the petition because she was disappointed with DSIC’s work.
“I don’t think they’re on top of everything like they should be. Retail promotions come last minute,” she said. “To throw promotions on us last minute isn’t doable with one or two employees.”
She and Miripuri also objected to what they said were regular requests for “freebies” or payments for promotions.
“We’re small businesses. We can’t do that,” Fitzmaurice said. “Give me at least a few months to plan.”
She particularly objected to the Merchant Mashup, which put restaurants inside retailers with free food for customers. The idea was to get people into the stores, with hopes that they would return to make purchases later.
But Fitzmaurice said she never got any new customers out of the deal.
“Honestly, you had a ton of people running in, demanding to know where the food is, shoving food into their faces, making a mess and leaving,” she said. “Numbers of people didn’t translate into sales.”
Salengo said the promotion was only the start. Business owners needed to use the promotion to sell themselves, he said.
“Put whatever merchandise you want to showcase up front. Ask people what they’re looking for. Ask them to sign up for your Facebook page. Offer them a coupon if they come back within the month,” he said.
He’s heard complaints about the promotions before, and DSIC is running workshops on how businesses can take advantage of events to win over new customers.
He also thought he had resolved the Jay Street flowers problem by putting it in the 2013 budget. But when he spoke with business owners Tuesday, some said they signed the petition because DSIC had taken Jay Street out of its 2013 budget, which is not true. Two business owners gave the same reason to The Daily Gazette.
Salengo said he thought that rumor probably came out of the flowering baskets discussion earlier this year. But he said people passing the petition ought to have checked their facts.
“It’s completely unfair to have misinformation presented to people,” Salengo said. “I had some really good conversations with people today. When something like this happens, some complete misinformation — it makes me sad.”