Use existing tools as growth incentives

March 1, 2017

Every community, even those that appear to be vibrant and thriving, have to work to develop a strong and flourishing business community, but then need to work to maintain their prosperity. Wise municipalities not only create the instruments they need to thrive, but figure out how to utilize those economic weapons to their best advantage.

About 10 years ago, faced with empty storefronts, Birmingham became very creative in their development of economic incentives to help reinvent the municipality from a cozy neighborhood downtown area into a destination city. Among other useful tools, from the 2016 Plan, planners and commissioners developed two adjunct liquor licenses that could be parsed out as economic development tools – the bistro liquor license and the economic development license.

The bistro liquor license was intended to revitalize the streets of the city, with two a year being given out for unique dining concepts, with no more than 65 seats per establishments, with up to 10 at a bar, and outdoor seating a must and windows that take up a majority of the glazing, in order to activate the streetscape, creating walkability along Birmingham's streets and inviting the public in. Bistros have been an overwhelming success, with outdoor dining and patios dotting the city's landscape in warmer months. 

But Birmingham has another device in their arsenal, one they have used sparingly over the years, called the economic development liquor license. According to their own ordinance section from 2016, “The purpose of this division is to establish a policy and conditions to allow the city commission the ability to approve a request to transfer a liquor license into the city in excess of the city's quota licenses if the request is deemed to constitute a substantial economic development and benefit to the city,” of which they categorize as an investment that increases the value of the property by at least 500 percent. 

City commissioners determined a few years ago that a corridor along Woodward Avenue would be the ideal zoning area for the the kind of redevelopment they envisioned for economic development licenses. Current restaurants that qualified for an economic development license are The Stand and Triple Nickel, both on Woodward. But city commissioners are missing out on the opportunity to revitalize both the Rail District and the Triangle District, which the city wants fashioned with the best of development, and developers, who are seeking partnerships and incentives. 

A perfect example is the Whole Foods market currently under construction at 2100 E. Maple Road, recently rezoned into the Rail District at the city's easternmost edge. As part of the store's market plan, they are envisioning a small restaurant inside, and are seeking a liquor license to serve beer and wine, as they do in other high-end markets. While they have sought a bistro license, their own attorney concedes it is not an ideal fit, and doesn't match the city's criteria of a bistro. But it does meet the specifications for an economic development license, with its $25 million investment, 250 jobs, and 500 percent increase in value. At a February commission meeting, commissioners were loathe to consider that request, as it veered off the Woodward corridor.

We believe the Whole Foods project, on a long-vacant property on a major roadway in the Rail District, is an ideal candidate for consideration for an economic development license. Tools are there to be used – wisely and appropriately.

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