To make the best decisions regarding a special tax levy to fund projects as proposed by and for Downtown Durham Inc., all the Durham City Council needs to do is ask the right people and take steps first to establish a baseline. It is that uncomplicated.
The right people are not only property owners but tenants and residents including apartment dwellers. Lobbying and special interests, even those with a legacy of playing win/lose hard ball politics, may be useful resources but biased by nature and rarely are their opinions generalizable.
A simple but scientifically randomized intercept survey can quickly and easily inform the best possible decision, possibly coupled with a carefully controlled online survey and could quickly implemented by using City staff and volunteers such as Durham Wayfinders. Any incidental costs could be reimbursed if/when the special levy is activated.
Even better, questions on the survey could drill down about how to help cut or prioritize costs, e.g. how many are willing to pay extra for sidewalk scrubbing and clean up vs. lobbying and marketing etc. Many communities such as Seattle, for example, use scientific intercepts to gauge the needs of districts including, but never limited to, just their downtown areas.
Such a survey could also help identify preferences for how the use of the special assessment should be governed.
For example, should this be done by a completely private organization with a self-appointed board as DDI has traditionally operated or by a quasi-independent authority possibly staffed by DDI but with publicly-appointed seats balanced to represent property owners, tenants and residents or perhaps even a conversion of the DDI model into a hybrid, etc.
Whatever is decided even if it isn’t based on an independent survey of stakeholders, I agree with DDI exec Bill Kalkhof who reportedly believes that general taxpayers should not be put on the hook -- any more than they already have been to fund special services or special treatment for just Downtown.
Regardless of what is decided about a special levy on Downtown, it won’t make a dent in overall resident perceptions of community aesthetics in general, one of three top drivers of community attachment.
While Durham residents rate the community much higher than the benchmarks overall, they rate it four times lower than the benchmark for aesthetics. This includes giving current maintenance of roadsides and medians a failing grade by three to one.
This discontent isn’t just about the presence of litter as some more interested in hardscape claim as they dismiss this negative ratings. Neglect such as this is linked in study after study to crime, property values, public health outcomes, economic development decisions, intolerance and abuse and more.
Durham officials need look no further than southeast Durham encompassing Research Triangle Park or the adjacent airport which is jointly-owned with Raleigh and Wake County to rediscover the best practices for overall aesthetics.
In fact, it might allay some of the widespread and growing opposition to the special levy on Downtown if the affected parties could first see overall Durham maintenance restored to appropriate levels as a guarantee that the special assessment on Downtown would truly provide services only above and beyond.
Hopefully officials will soon take a broader view of aesthetics and will address neglect in Downtown as well as community-wide.