Public Policy Forum Blog

What is the Role of BIDs and NIDs in Milwaukee County?

If you happen to be walking down a commercial corridor in Milwaukee, pause for a moment and take a look around. Do you see any banners? How about planters or special pavers for the crosswalk? Is there a festival taking place or are there any cleanup crews sweeping up? Are uniformed ambassadors standing by, ready to assist wayward shoppers? If so, then chances are good you are looking at the work of a business improvement district.

In Taking Care of Business, we examine business and neighborhood improvement districts (BIDs and NIDs) in Milwaukee County. BIDs and NIDs are created by groups of property owners who pay an additional tax for mutually beneficial services or improvements within a district. By pooling their resources in this manner, property owners can supplement the services being provided by their local government to meet their specific needs. BIDs focus exclusively on commercial properties, while NIDs may include some residential properties.

BIDs and NIDs can serve a wide variety of purposes, ranging from beautification projects and safety services to marketing and special events. A common goal is to create streets that are “safe, clean, and friendly,” which makes them attractive for shoppers and pedestrians.

There are 45 BIDs and NIDs in Milwaukee County. Six of the county’s 19 municipalities have at least one BID, but most are located in the City of Milwaukee. All of the City’s 15 aldermanic districts contain at least a portion of a BID or NID, though they are most heavily clustered in the downtown area.

Key findings from our analysis include the following:

  • With its 32 BIDs and 7 NIDs, the City of Milwaukee has more per capita than any other city in the U.S. In fact, Milwaukee has more than double the number of BIDs/NIDs per capita as Minneapolis, which occupies the number two slot.
  • The properties contained within the City of Milwaukee's 39 BIDs and NIDs have an assessed value of $5.7 billion, which accounts for 21% of the city’s total real estate value. The BIDs alone, which almost exclusively are made up of commercial properties, have a combined property value of $4.7 billion – more than half of the city’s total commercial value.
  • Notwithstanding their popularity, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of local BIDs and NIDs due to a lack of available performance data. The report recommends that districts work to create measurable goals and benchmarks, which would enhance the ability of BID and NID members – and the community at large – to assess their effectiveness.
  • Wisconsin's BID and NID statutes are notable for the relatively low thresholds they set for district creation. In addition, creation and retention of BIDs in Wisconsin is largely determined by the support of property owners based on the percentage value of the property they own within a district, as opposed to majorities of the number of property owners.
  • Recently, there has been a great deal of progress at the City of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development (DCD) in the form of better accountability through improved collection of legally mandated documents. The report provides several recommendations for improving audits and annual reports that could help that progress continue.

Overall, the unique assortment and volume of BIDs and NIDs in Milwaukee County (and, particularly, the City of Milwaukee) is a phenomenon that merits further contemplation. For example, is the proliferation of BIDs and NIDs a reflection of their inherent value, or does it reflect the inability of local municipal governments to provide services that are critical to business and neighborhood improvement? Is the ease with which BIDs can be initiated and sustained in Wisconsin a positive attribute that is nurturing the creation of highly effective improvement districts, or a negative element that is discouraging appropriate oversight and inhibiting the rights of small property owners?

While our research is unable to answer those questions, it does suggest action to promote the improved data collection and reporting that will be critical to doing so. Several such strategies already have been initiated by Milwaukee's DCD, and we hope this report will lend support to such efforts and promote robust, data-driven consideration of Milwaukee's unique use of business and neighborhood improvement districts. 

Chris Hillard