Should a business district manager help an individual business

Visitor Question: I own a restaurant in a popular neighborhood of our city. We have an organized business district that collects a small tax, and the district employs a manager. She has been quite successful in keeping our neighborhood in the spotlight, but now I am very annoyed about something she is doing. She seems to be helping a competing restaurant figure out some of their problems. Someone told me she visited the restaurant and made suggestions about how to deaden the sound, which is an unpleasant roar even when the restaurant is only half full, according to my friends. I wish someone would help me with my business problems. Is what she is doing appropriate? Do other business district managers solve the issues of a particular business?

Editors Reply In our experience, the most beloved business district managers do engage with business owners on issues and problems specific to their businesses.

However, that isn't universally the case. I participated as a consultant to a city where one business district became embroiled in a major conflict because of just this issue. One particular business practiced very poor accounting on a "do it yourself" basis. Not too surprisingly, they were accused of not paying their taxes correctly. The business owner said he certainly was headed for bankruptcy. So the business district manager decided to take it on herself to straighten out their books and help them calculate their back taxes correctly so that hopefully they could pay up before the penalties forced them out of business.

As you can imagine, a business that was somewhat competitive was none too pleased with this situation. The other businesses in the special taxing district quickly chose up sides, some thinking that the district's manager needed to come to the rescue of any business if her talents would be useful. Others said she was out of line spending so much time on a project that benefited only a single business and did not improve the functioning or appearance of the district as a whole at all.

Weighing what those of us who write for this page think as planners, as well as my own experience with serving as staff to organized business districts, I think that some attention to problems impacting an individual business is warranted. To me the deciding factor is the amount of time required. In your instance, you might ask others to investigate and then think about how much time the district manager spent on this project.

You said she visited and made suggestions. From that description, it could be that the manager spent an hour and a half on this, and then moved on to other work. I would find that acceptable, and would hope that when you need an hour and a half of advice about your business, the manager makes time for you too. On the other hand, if the manager spent an hour and a half in the business and then went back to her office and researched soundproofing solutions for restaurants for two days, followed by another couple of hours with the restaurant owner, I think that's too much time.

Granted, this is subjective, which is why there is disagreement sometimes about this topic. As a rule of thumb, I think a business district manager should spend about as much time as it takes with an individual owner to the extent that the manager is relying on their own expertise and prior knowledge.

However, if research into solutions is necessary, I think the business owner should pick up on that work. If asked to explore a topic in which they have insufficient expertise, I think the manager themselves should either refer the business owner to an expert or information source, or explain that the business owner needs to take responsibility for researching the answer.

The focus of a business district manager should remain on the functionality of the district, the proper economic mix of businesses (including recruiting new businesses as needed to fill vacant spaces and holes in the types of establishments), appearance of the district, and planning and executing the special events that bring new and repeat customers into the area. A business district manager also is part cheerleader and certainly should be encouraging the discouraged and inspiring the uninspired. But that doesn't mean that a manager needs to spend much time in problem resolution for a particular business owner.

Another consideration is whether the problems of one business create obstacles for the others, or for customers of the district in general. If so, of course more of the district manager's time is warranted.

I also would make an exception to the idea of only minimum assistance in the internal affairs of a business if the particular business is essential to the economic viability of the district, such as being the largest, most visible customer draw or providing goods or services unique in the metropolitan area.

As you can see, we consider this more an art than a science, so if you are concerned, discuss the matter with the manager and-or the board.

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