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Main Street program could benefit Winslow Way

Winslow Way is among an increasingly small number of cities with an active main street that serves as the heart and soul of its community.

The effort to save and restore small-town main streets is challenging in a world filled with big box stores – a fight with which the island is familiar. To its credit, the Bainbridge downtown is still dotted with mom-and-pop stores, despite the lingering construction dust and slow tax receipts that caused many business owners to scramble to keep the lights on.

Also struggling to keep the doors open is the non-profit agency dedicated solely to the viability of the downtown business community. After a funding shortage forced the departure of the Bainbridge Island Downtown Association’s executive director, BIDA has quietly kept the pilot light on for a year while it waited for better times.

Now that a page appears to have turned with construction nearing its end, BIDA is experiencing a resurgence of energy and a push to save the organization and its affiliation with the state’s Main Street program before the year’s end.

“Bainbridge Island is an interesting case because when the program went away, everyone realized that they had needed it most in the middle of a street reconstruction and a poor economy,” said Sarah Hansen, coordinator of the Washington Main Street Program – a branch of the Washington State Trust for Historic Preservation. “We are hoping Bainbridge gets the program back on track, and certified for 2012.”

Up until 2011, Bainbridge Island was one of 11 communities in the state to earn a national accreditation through the Main Street program with other cities such as Walla Walla, Ellensburg and Chelan. The program is geared to helping communities revitalize the economy and appearance of their downtown using a framework for promotion, organization, design and economic restructure efforts.

Nationally, there are more than 2,000 communities involved in the network, which has spurred $49 billion in reinvestment in traditional commercial districts, according to the National Trust Main Street Center.

When BIDA lost funding from the city in the midst of an already tough economy, Andrea Mackin stepped down as executive director and took a position with the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce.

BIDA continued to operate in a skeleton form of its former self, with Sina Pradel as the sole employee, while the BIDA Main Street affiliation was placed on probation. In order to re-engage the Main Street program, employing a full-time director is one of a series of requirements for recognition.

Mackin is stepping back into the role of executive director on a contract-basis in hopes of rebuilding the program before the end of the year. The biggest challenge, she said, is securing an operating budget, which will then allow the local program to seek specific grants to do individual projects.

“Since many grants do not provide for operating budgets,” Mackin said, “we need to look for a steady stream of funding.”

In order to initiate the program for 2012, BIDA has until the end of the year to secure the funds to hire a director, and get the program off probation.

The state has already given the program the go-ahead to apply for accreditation in early 2012 as a reward for hanging onto the program despite the obstacles, Mackin said. To qualify, BIDA still needs to solidify a working budget of financial support from local entities, including city government, merchants, businesses and the public.

One major push for funding is through the program’s tax credit incentive initiative. The program provides a Business & Occupation tax credit for private contributions donated to eligible organizations such as BIDA – worth 75 percent of the contribution.

Dave Welty, an island resident who owns a financial advisory firm in Bellevue, has participated in the program for the past two years and is planning to contribute for a third year.

“How often in life do you get to pay your tax bill and know exactly where the money is going?” said Welty. “We pay B & O taxes regardless, so when I write my check to BIDA it is a unique opportunity to see where the money is going and know I am doing something to help my community.”

In 2010, for example, Welty had to pay around $22,700 in state B&O taxes on his gross yearly revenues.  Instead of paying the state of Washington, Welty chose to write a check to BIDA.   For every dollar he gave to BIDA, he received a tax credit of 75 cents towards the following year’s state B&O tax.

“Last year, I wrote a check for $24,000.  In return, I received an $18,000 tax credit.  So, for the following year (2011), I used the $18,000 credit towards my company’s B&O taxes,” said Welty. “Since BIDA is a non-profit, I was able to write off the $24,000 as a charitable contribution on my personal tax return.”

The state allows BIDA to collect up to $133,333 per calendar year through the program. So far, BIDA is 20 percent of the way to its goal. Working with other businesses with the financial capacity for the tax program is a major step in the process of rebuilding the BIDA budget, Mackin said.

“Companies ought to be stepping up to fill this bucket,” said Welty. “Every time I get the chance to talk about the program with local businesses I do, because we should be fighting to get those dollars into the program.”

Mackin said she is receiving support from many business owners who’ve stepped up to help revive the organization after realizing how important it would have been during the months of construction.

“The last six to eight months without having BIDA and Main Street support has spurred one conversation after another among small downtown business owners,” said Mackin. “In the last month especially we are getting people excited and interested in generating the possibility of a reemerged program.”

Hansen said she is hopeful the Bainbridge community will get behind the program again to continue to improve the Winslow business core.

“The Main Street program is one step beyond just economic development,” said Hansen. “It is a network and support for downtown communities and a close-knit group of people who can collaborate towards a common goal.”

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