The Challenges of Using BIDs in Lower-Income Areas: The Case of Germantown, Philadelphia

Robert Stokes
In April 1995, Mayor Edward Rendell signed the bill that created a special services district for the Central Germantown community. The process that created the Germantown Special Services District (GSSD) had been neither easy nor fast—initial discussions of the dis- trict began in 1992. The GSSD was the fourth district to be approved in Philadelphia. The first two districts, the Center City District and the South Street/Headhouse District represented a more common use of business improvement districts (BIDs), by providing addi- tional services in central business districts as well as entertainment and tourism areas with healthy real property tax and customer bases. Germantown, along with the Frankford Special Services District (the city’s third approved district, located in the city’s lower northeast neighborhood of Frankford), represented a novel use of the BID model in areas with significant economic, social, and physical challenges. As the BID model largely relies on a self-help model of urban management and service delivery, districts with little resources typically struggle to reach their goals.2 This is especially true when those goals go beyond simple place management and maintenance functions to include larger initiatives related to the social and economic transformation of urban communities. The case of Central Germantown and the GSSD points to a need for a broader set of public policies to assist BIDs operating in low- income communities. Such policies should focus on maintaining a predictable base budget level while helping to develop programs and strategies that leverage existing organizational strengths. This Case Study draws on a number of sources, including a synthesis of three major studies of Central Germantown’s commercial district over the past decade, a review of historical news items collected by the Urban Archives at Temple University, an examination of city planning and census data, and the results of a survey interview with the director of the GSSD. Part II includes a discussion of the physical, social, and economic context of the Central German-town area; Part III describes the community’s historical efforts at redevelopment; Part IV looks at the current state of the district, including the challenges faced by its leaders in implementing a commercial and community revitalization program; Part V analyzes these challenges, as well as the accomplishments of the GSSD; and Part VI provides conclusions and policy recommendations.
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