Durango Business Improvement District

Durango Business Improvement District: Ensuring That Downtown Durango is a Desirable Destination for Locals, Visitors, and Business Owners

Although Durango has many thriving neighborhoods, most locals and visitors consider downtown the historic, commercial and social heart of our community.  It is Durango’s most popular and vibrant district, thanks in part to BID. In 1997, a group with new ideas and new energy got together with the goal of making a good thing even better. A small contingency of creative locals interested in Durango’s future began investigating the possibilities of building a convention center downtown. This original exploratory committee soon expanded their focus, looking for additional ways to develop and support downtown’s potential. The group eventually evolved into the Durango Business Improvement District (BID), an agency that serves local businesses and all guests (locals and visitors), both downtown and on North Main.

As BID explains on its website, their “…underlying purpose is to improve conditions for businesses in specific areas, attract and retain businesses, and improve the overall experience for those who use the district.”  Among BID’s responsibilities and contributions are seasonal marketing campaigns, downtown beautification initiatives, visitors’ maps, downtown event infrastructure, and much more. BID ramps up services even more during summertime, which is primetime for many downtown businesses.

Downtown Ambassadors

Few amenities make visitors feel more welcome and valued than a friendly, smiling face! BID’s new (summer 2016), downtown ambassador program has placed seven warm and welcoming community representatives, full of helpful information for visitors, on downtown streets. These BID ambassadors work in part-time shifts, walking along Main Avenue answering questions, helping people find specific destinations, and making recommendations to help visitors get the most out of their Durango experiences.

These hospitable ambassadors are a BID response to the recent and significant increase in the number of panhandlers in Durango. Wearing blue shirts, clearly identified with “Information” printed on the back, BID’s ambassadors serve as a reassuring ‘buffer’ of sorts between sometimes overly aggressive panhandlers and the tourists that find them disconcerting and disturbing. Ambassadors also serve as a roving community watch team. They are empowered to notify authorities if they see behavior that verges on unsafe, intimidating or illegal.

Make It Count Program

Until 2014, panhandling was illegal within Durango city limits. With precedence set by a First Amendment Supreme Court case (that had nothing to do with Durango), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged anti-panhandling laws across the U.S. The ACLU won the case, making it a violation of First Amendment rights to outlaw panhandling. When the ruling was upheld through the Federal Courts level, it became necessary for the City of Durango to revise its law to only outlaw aggressive panhandling. (See below for a link to the city bylaws, including descriptions of behaviors that fit under the definition of aggressive, including: coercive, intimidating, obscene, and obstructive.)

In the two years since the law was changed, downtown panhandlers have become a large and daily downtown presence. Opinions vary as to whether or not panhandlers are disruptive to businesses, to the general feeling of peace and wellbeing of visitors, and to the overall experience of enjoying Main Avenue and its surrounds. Regardless of where one stands on the question of disruption, most agree that the panhandlers in no way enhance the downtown scene.

In addition to the ambassador initiative, BID has introduced a program to reduce panhandling, called Make it Count.  According to BID executive director, Tim Walsworth, “BID encourages locals and visitors to give to charities instead of to panhandlers.” The idea is that donations to local charitable organizations ((Manna Soup Kitchen, for instance, and the Durango Community Kitchen) will serve a greater number of people in need. One hundred donation boxes were distributed among downtown businesses, and marketing and informational materials were created to spread the word about the program.

An important second aspect of Make It Count was the hiring of a homeless outreach coordinator. “This person’s job is to interact with anyone panhandling in downtown Durango to make sure they know of the services that are available to them,” said Walsworth. “If they are interested in accessing any services, the homeless outreach coordinator will help them to do so.” The coordinator has been active throughout June and July, also helping to discourage illegal panhandling, in terms of any intimidating or aggressive behavior.

According to Walsworth, early evidence suggests that the BID initiatives have resonated positively with visitors and business owners, and have curbed incidences of aggressive behavior among panhandlers.

*Image courtesy of Ken Lund – Flickr Creative Commons

One Comment

  • Kara

    Thanks for bringing up this issue, it is one that I am really interested in. As you know I left for 2 years and came home to all these panhandlers and I was really turned off, what happened to my town. I work downtown and see this every day, some days when I am walking to work I see only the homeless. I think this needs a lot more discussion and hopefully there is some kind of solution. On the other hand I am proud to live in a town that takes care of its poor.

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