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Cooperative vision needed for downtown

As we went to press with this issue, we learned that Birmingham Shopping District (BSD) Executive Director Cristina Sheppard-Decius had left her position as of February 1, and Birmingham Assistant City Manager Melissa Fairbairn has been named the interim director. A small notation of the leadership change was included in the February 12 city commission meeting packet in the city manager's report. No reason was given for the management change and the city manager's report only referred to a “separation of employment” for Sheppard-Decius. A local official has referred to “conflict” between the former executive director and members of the city administration, but no one has been able to say whether the change was actually a firing or a resignation.


While some merchants have long bemoaned what they perceive as the lack of involvement between whoever has been the executive director and the retail community, the BSD actually is an involved partner with merchants, building owners and the public. The BSD creates events which bring in the public, help market and advertise the downtown area, and connect business and the public. Think past restaurant weeks, the farmers' market, Winter Markt, Spring Stroll, and you're seeing the BSD in action. The BSD also works to help fill retail vacancies when they arise.


Landlords of retail and commercial spaces pay an assessment to support the BSD, which is usually passed on through rent, based on where in the downtown the business is located. The heart of downtown Birmingham at Maple and Old Woodward commands a higher assessment than a location at N. Old Woodward close to Oak Street, for example. Residents and their taxes do not support the BSD in any way, shape or form.


The BSD currently is comprised of nearly 300 retailers, from national to regional and locally-owned, including a diverse assortment of fashion boutiques, gift shops, jewelers, furniture stores, interior designers, salons, spas, movie theaters, art galleries and restaurants, along with an office space component that faces a changing future in a post-pandemic remote work world. Birmingham supports a thriving business district, and supporting the myriad of interests can at time conflict.


Then throw in landlords of all the various individual buildings in the different locations in Birmingham, each with their own interests.


Which is why the loss of the executive director of the BSD – the second one in two years – comes at a particularly difficult time. As anyone living or visiting downtown Birmingham can see, due to a variety of factors, there are currently a number of vacancies in downtown, notably along West Maple Road. Some are due to market conditions, some appear self-inflicted. But together they present the image of a formerly vibrant and inviting shopping area that is now challenged.


Several of the downtown landlords, according to real estate brokers, desire rents that many consider “stratospheric.” A few national retailers are willing to pay those rents but often at a hidden price – the eventual loss or exclusion of smaller independent businesses that help to make the city a unique destination for local residents as well as those who visit. In other instances, it can lead to long-term vacancies as some landlords prefer to allow their spaces to remain vacant as they await their magic price.


Coupled with unrealistic rent prices are other landlords who are not responsive to tenant complaints, which eventually leads to even more churn in the business community.


Previous BSD directors and executive boards had the foresight to attempt working together with landlords, including hiring a retail consultant who worked with real estate brokers, building owners and the BSD to help find the right “mix” of retailers and businesses so that certain categories were not oversaturated in the downtown area.


Leadership in the city, the BSD board and cooperation on the part of the landlord community are all needed to preserve downtown Birmingham as an attractive retail center. It's an essential quality to be pursued when searching for the next director of the BSD – the ability to bring all partners to the table to retain a strong reputation for the downtown as a worthy destination.

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