When the Downtown San Diego Partnership finishes reinventing itself, it’ll look like a Chamber of Commerce with certain government powers.

And that’s exactly what its chief has in mind.

“Some of the things we’re getting involved in, 20 years ago I never would have said private organizations should be getting involved in,” said the organization’s president and CEO, Kris Michell.

Until now, the organization has had two primary functions.

One is economic development. It’s a nonprofit group with paying members that advocates for downtown. It’s crafting a neighborhood brand and trying to attract businesses.

The other is as the manager of the neighborhood’s property and business improvement district, or PBID. The partnership calls the district its “Clean & Safe” program. It charges property owners and businesses a fee to pay for services like tree trimming, sidewalk cleaning and graffiti removal within its boundaries.


We Stand Up For You. Will You Stand Up For Us?

The program is approved by the city, which then contracts its management to the Downtown San Diego Partnership. In 2009, the city overcharged certain property owners on their property tax bill. The city has since reimbursed all the residents they determined were overcharged.

The new and improved partnership will continue taking care of those tasks, but a consultant from Denver helped it build a new organizational blueprint that’ll bring on new responsibilities including, perhaps, managing new public transportation.

The organization’s leader is a familiar power in the downtown sphere. Almost three years ago, a Voice of San Diego story referred to Michell as “the most powerful person in San Diego you know nothing about.” She served as chief of staff for both Mayor Jerry Sanders and Mayor Susan Golding. She managed the Republican National Convention, the Super Bowl and the campaign for PETCO Park.

When she took over the partnership, Michell said, she recognized the shrinking capacity of government at all levels meant her organization was no longer suited for downtown’s long-term needs.

“I was with (Golding) for ’93 to ’97, and then with (Sanders) in ’05 and ’06, and the contrast was stark,” she said. “I could see what government was unable to provide given how resources were so diminished. So I knew the old model didn’t match up well for the next 20 to 30 years.”

Michell answers to the partnership’s board of directors, composed mostly of high-profile business leaders from companies like Bridgepoint Education, the Irvine Company, Cox Communications and WalMart.

In May of 2011, the board took a retreat to sketch out a new role for the present market.

By the end of that year, the train of government-funded neighborhood reinvention in California hit a wall, when the state Supreme Court upheld the governor’s decision to end the redevelopment program.

So the partnership hired Brad Segal, president of Denver’s Progressive Urban Management Associates, to put together a program that would allow it to carry the mantle of urban renewal.

“Out of every crisis comes the need to reinvent and do things differently,” Segal said. “The San Diego Downtown Partnership is ahead of the game and what we’re doing could certainly set the path for the rest of the state, for how to operate in a post-redevelopment world.”

A New Model

The new set-up would include a single nonprofit holding company that would centralize the organization’s administration and leadership.

Its tasks would then be conducted by six affiliate entities, each with its own board of directors and budget. Then two members of each individual board would serve on the overall board.

The Downtown San Diego Partnership wants to retain control of the entire operation, while extending itself into different roles with a revenue stream and legal mechanism attached to each one.

New Downtown Partnership Diagram

For instance, the membership-based advocacy and development organization that exists today will be one of these independent entities. It’ll operate as a 501(c)6 organization with its own board of directors.

And the clean and safe program will be another independent operation, set up as an assessment district with money coming in through fees and going out through services, just as in other neighborhoods throughout the city.

The partnership has also set-up the Downtown San Diego Partnership Homeless Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization that administers homelessness services in the downtown area. Private donations, including red meters collecting change for homeless residents installed throughout downtown, feed the organization’s budget.

Downtown San Diego Partnership
Downtown San Diego Partnership
The Downtown San Diego Partnership collects money for homeless services through red meters in the area.

It spends the money on programs like “Movin’ Home,” which among other things provides residents who just located housing with basic utilities like dishes, linens and pots, and “Work Your Way Home,” which last year helped 37 residents return to their original homes in 20 different states.

In maybe the most expansive increase in the partnership’s scope, the reorganization would, by September of 2015, set up a special authority for transportation and mobility in the downtown area.

It wants to launch a downtown-only bus service, or a circulator, similar those popping up in other cities.

“The downtown circulator will be one of the biggest game changers in downtown,” Michell said. “We have a geographically large downtown that makes it hard to get around. It’ll have a spur going up to Balboa Park. And we needed a solution to the perception that there’s a parking problem.”

Final decisions will need to wait on the outcome of two project studies, but Michell suspects the partnership will outsource maintenance and operation of the bus to the Metropolitan Transit System while it focuses on securing a long-term revenue stream to fund it.

The new organization has also formed a 501(c)3 dedicated to parks and outdoor space management and development. It’s still working to identify ongoing funding streams, beyond basic fundraising. Michell said she imagines each community having the ability to schedule events in the parks closest to it.

The reorganization also calls for a nonprofit dedicated entirely to pursuing development projects. It would do some of the things already being done by Civic San Diego, like pursuing federal tax credits to help build local projects.

Michell said the partnership will eventually form that entity, but doesn’t expect to do anything with it in the foreseeable future, because that task can be better handled by Civic San Diego, the organization formed when the city’s former redevelopment agencies were ended by the statewide end of the program.

Both Michell and Jeff Graham, president of Civic San Diego, said the organizations complement each other in a post-redevelopment world.

“It’s now incumbent on the private sector, through groups like the Downtown Partnership, to create the funding sources to implement things like an arts and culture district, a business retention program. Government isn’t always best at these things.”

One way the organizations would work together, he said, is for Civic San Diego to design and build parks, which would be programmed, managed and maintained through the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

“Civic San Diego is policy, process and infrastructure,” Segal said. “Clearly, our focus is on a private inspired, public-private partnerships. It’s a springboard for the city.”

 A Privatized Local Government

It’s a difficult time for a downtown organization that’s mostly known for its advocacy for downtown businesses to begin taking over roles traditionally handled by public agencies.

Mayor Bob Filner ran his campaign as a chance to recapture the city from downtown insiders. He was talking about organizations like the partnership, and figures like Michell.

But Michell said she isn’t concerned with the perception that the group is overstepping its bounds.

“We’re not trying to supplant government, because we never could and we don’t want to. But I also don’t want us walking out of a board meeting and complaining about things that we don’t like or aren’t happening but then nothing gets done because we didn’t do anything.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said San Diego had yet to reimburse downtown residents who were overcharged on their tax bills for the improvement district. Residents scheduled for reimbursements have received the full amount the city plans to give them.

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    This article relates to: Business Improvement Districts, Land Use, Mayoral Election Issues 2014, Neighborhood Growth, News, Share

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

    15 comments
    Kevin Barbieux
    Kevin Barbieux

    What kind of city do you want? One that belongs to all of its very diverse citizenry, or to just to the few wealthy and influential individuals who look to make a profit off the city? Believe me when I tell you that one of the main reasons the city is lacking needed services is because of very same people who are a part of the downtown partnership. Downtown partnerships are springing up all over the country, and their M.O. is all the same. At it's core is capitalists working to replace government. Where government is beholding to every citizen, corporations are only beholding to their investors, and really, only their top investors. At first it will be nice having the DP clean up the city, but then what? Eventually, the general population will lose its right to decide the fate of the city, and eventually they will lose their right to enjoy what the city has to offer. Some people believe that a city can be run better by business people, than by politicians. But folks, a government is not a business. Democracy cannot be sustained under corporate business leadership.

    john nienstedt
    john nienstedt

    Just want to urge everyone to take the survey on what San Diego's Downtown should look like. The Choosing Survey is at http://www.downtownsandiego.org/our-downtown-vision/you-choose/Our Greater San Diego Vision Survey, Get Involved Downtown | Downtown San Diego Partnership - http://www.downtownsandiego.org/our-downtown-vision/you-choose/Via the San Diego Foundation's "Our Greater San Diego Vision" project, more than 30,000 San Diegans considered priorities for our region's future. Now we'd like your help to further define these priorities as it relates to downtown San Diego.

    Kelly Abbott
    Kelly Abbott

    Thanks for the form, John. I filled it out. But some of those questions are awkward. You should give it a re-read for clarity.

    john nienstedt
    john nienstedt subscribermember

    Just want to urge everyone to take the survey on what San Diego's Downtown should look like. The Choosing Survey is at http://www.downtownsandiego.org/our-downtown-vision/you-choose/Our Greater San Diego Vision Survey, Get Involved Downtown | Downtown San Diego Partnership - http://www.downtownsandiego.org/our-downtown-vision/you-choose/Via the San Diego Foundation's "Our Greater San Diego Vision" project, more than 30,000 San Diegans considered priorities for our region's future. Now we'd like your help to further define these priorities as it relates to downtown San Diego.

    Kelly Abbott
    Kelly Abbott contributormember

    Thanks for the form, John. I filled it out. But some of those questions are awkward. You should give it a re-read for clarity.

    jgsummer@cox.net
    jgsummer@cox.net

    Comment on Partnership Article – 8 June 13 The Rise of the Downtown Partnership Our city, our entire city needs the Downtown Partnership now, more than ever. Two well-chosen words: 1. Downtown . . . the central core of the city a. Where business and government needs can be met in person within minutes, where workers find more variety for lunch within blocks than they find elsewhere within miles b. Where residents find most of their needs within walking distance … reducing infrastructure growth and enabling other neighborhoods to minimize unwanted high-density housing c. Where a vast array of sports and entertainment provide millions from the city and county, from the country and the world relief from everyday stress, and where tourism dollars provide sustenance for every one of our neighborhoods 2. Partnership a. An entity where multiple parties join together to accomplish goals they can’t achieve alone b. And where, through close cooperation and mutual desire, the parties sometimes fall in love We are in love with the Downtown Partnership. With its members, from companies big and small, who work toward a better city for all. With its management, from Kris on down, who’ve already made for a better town. And with its many future goals and what it will take: its multiple roles. Joyce Summer

    Reid Carr
    Reid Carr

    The Partnership, behind Kris Michell's leadership, has done an incredible job of listening to the community, investigating best practices (Denver, as an example) and becoming proactive to develop a healthy downtown, which in turn, shares its vibrancy with the rest of the city. I am really excited about where we are headed.

    Reid Carr
    Reid Carr subscribermember

    The Partnership, behind Kris Michell's leadership, has done an incredible job of listening to the community, investigating best practices (Denver, as an example) and becoming proactive to develop a healthy downtown, which in turn, shares its vibrancy with the rest of the city. I am really excited about where we are headed.

    Donna Jones
    Donna Jones

    As a former Chair of the Partnership and someone who has spent most of her waking hours in downtown for the past 22 years while sleeping in Inland North County, I am incredibly excited about how Kris has energized the Partnership and the incredible staff she has chosen to work with her to make our downtown an economic engine, a center for creative and innovative solutions, and a living and working environment that feels as clean and safe as it is possible to be in an urban environment like ours, while also being full of life, passion and energy. It is a challenging time for downtown with redevelopment no longer available and Civic San Diego's need and goals of expanding its focus to other neighborhoods, so its vitally important that the Partnership have the structure and organization required to keep downtown alive and growing with a vision that those in my part of the woods ... RB, Rancho Pen, etc. and other areas of the City understand the benefits of as well. The Partnership is not a threat to government but a true partner who can leverage what gov't is able to do and make it even better. I look forward to working with the Partnership to achieve its goals and look back years from now to see a City that is flourishing due to the work of the Partnership and the many others who devote their time, energy and passion to making the City even better.

    Kathy Casey
    Kathy Casey subscriber

    It was fine that the Partnership hired Brad Segal, president of Denver's Progressive Urban Management Associates, to put together a program that would allow it to carry the mantle of urban renewal. It was NOT fine for the Partnership to pay for 73% of the $28,000 contract with Brad Segal with PBID funds (assessments) allocated to the Clean and Safe program.

    Richard Ross
    Richard Ross subscribermember

    It is quite appropriate that Ms. Michell head up the Downtown Partnership seeing as she worked for one of the most corrupt mayors this city has had and a close runner up. One created the fiscal distaster that we are still living with and the other pushed redevelopment's focus on downtown while ignoring the needs of the rest of the city especially the 4th and 8th council districts. Need one mention our falling apart infrastructure? Ms. Casey is quite correct about the improper diversion of PBID funds.

    Kathy Casey
    Kathy Casey

    It was fine that the Partnership hired Brad Segal, president of Denver's Progressive Urban Management Associates, to put together a program that would allow it to carry the mantle of urban renewal. It was NOT fine for the Partnership to pay for 73% of the $28,000 contract with Brad Segal with PBID funds (assessments) allocated to the Clean and Safe program.

    Richard Ross
    Richard Ross

    It is quite appropriate that Ms. Michell head up the Downtown Partnership seeing as she worked for one of the most corrupt mayors this city has had and a close runner up. One created the fiscal distaster that we are still living with and the other pushed redevelopment's focus on downtown while ignoring the needs of the rest of the city especially the 4th and 8th council districts. Need one mention our falling apart infrastructure? Ms. Casey is quite correct about the improper diversion of PBID funds.

    Kelly Abbott
    Kelly Abbott

    To their credit, we used to have an office in an un-polished part of downtown. We'd call the Downtown Partnership and ask them to clean our sidewalk from time to time. They would swing by within an hour of us reporting a mess. Eventually we had to leave because the neighborhood won. There's only so much you can do in reaction mode.

    Kelly Abbott
    Kelly Abbott contributormember

    To their credit, we used to have an office in an un-polished part of downtown. We'd call the Downtown Partnership and ask them to clean our sidewalk from time to time. They would swing by within an hour of us reporting a mess. Eventually we had to leave because the neighborhood won. There's only so much you can do in reaction mode.