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.
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.
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.
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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