Betting on BIDS


George Town starts Asia’s first ever Business Improvement District Scheme

The rejuvenation of an urban area cannot really be left only to the authorities. This has become clear to businesses and residents living around the Komtar area. Taking the lead from other cities that have succeeded in reviving degenerated areas, they are now working with the state government to turn their district into Penang’s next attraction.

Komtar, or Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak, remains one of the most recognisable symbols of Penang. Although an unmistakable landmark, it is also ironically a “forgotten” building, only a shadow of its former self. Back in the 1990s, Komtar was bustling with traders, shoppers, workers and students. This was no surprise as it was the only “mall” of its kind and size in Penang.

Believe it or not, Komtar was the place to be seen for teenagers. Today, the area looks like it’s still stuck in the past, refusing to adapt to 21st century sophistication. Years of neverending traffic activity has smothered the area in a permanent cloud of smoke and dust, staining the original white buildings yellow. The local teenagers and young adults who once gathered there have now been replaced with immigrants; the youthfulness of those days is replaced by the malaise associated with tired and old faces. The vibrancy seems to have moved to more popular arcades like Gurney Plaza and Queensbay Mall. The area has changed so much that the previous Penang state government actually wanted to move out of the building. Luckily for the one-time tallest building in Southeast Asia, that plan has since been called off.

Something obviously needs to be done to prevent the area from deteriorating any further. Penang is of course not alone in facing this issue of a degenerating neighbourhood; in cities such as New York and London, one way through which governments and city councils have succeeded in revitalising urban centres has been to tap into the private sector through the Business Improvement District Scheme (BIDS). BIDS originated in North America and exists in different forms. Essentially BIDS is a joint-effort of business interests coming together to achieve public good. In short, stakeholders in a geographical space called a district come together to revive the place. BIDS has succeeded in cities all around the world. Downtown Washington DC, for example, was a desolate office park. The place faced issues similar to those we have at Komtar, such as dirt, dullness and crime. At one point, Washington DC was known as the “murder capital of the world”. Realising the gravity of the situation, the mayor and city council launched a Business Improvement District (BID) in the area to try to save it. Transforming Downtown DC took some time, but eventually changes started to happen, and the place started cleaning itself up and new buildings were constructed. Today, the Downtown DC BID is a flourishing environment with pedestrians and small businesses nicely populating the once desolate place. This is no surprise, considering the milestones in social development in the area such as affordable housing, renovated public schools, the creation of thousands of new jobs and other economic development projects. Besides that, crime in the area went down by a staggering 48% and the BID even won the city’s Sustainability Award by greening the area and making leaps in reducing energy consumption.

In an attempt to emulate the success of the BIDS, Think City in Penang proposed to set up a BID surrounding the Komtar area. In December 2009, this Khazanah-funded urban regeneration agency hosted Donald Hyslop, the chairman of the Better Bankside BIDS, and he introduced the idea of BIDS to stakeholders within the Komtar area and in Little India. Hyslop’s visit was made possible through a joint-venture between Think City and the British Council to bring innovative urban solutions to Penang.

Hyslop’s visit received positive feedback because a BID seemed to be the viable way of creating a sustainable platform for urban regeneration, and most importantly there was potential revenue from visitors.

In December 2009, a BIDS pro-tem committee was formed consisting of the state government, MPPP, Ivory Properties, the Penang Development Corporation (PDC), Gama, Prangin Mall and Heng Lee, with Think City acting as the secretariat. This was the first time ever that different businesses in the area got together to help augment local government services.



A concept plan for the George Town BIDS was drawn up, involving 85.23 acres enclosing Jalan Dato' Keramat, Jalan Penang, Jalan Magazine and Jalan Dr Lim Chwee Leong. A project of this scale involves a lot of work, and to ensure its success, comprehensive research was undertaken to establish the “baseline” before the team could convince the stakeholders in the area.

In November 2011, the George Town BIDS pro-tem committee was finally ready to put up a conceptual scheme for area improvement for public feedback at Komtar Walk. Roving teams were also sent to Ivory Times Square and Gama. All the residents living around the BID area received the necessary information through flyers and brochures. The public exhibition and survey at Komtar Walk received very positive feedback from the community. Additionally, the exhibition was also an outreach programme to foster greater understanding about BIDS.

The findings showed that the community agreed that some form of regeneration programme was needed in the area. The BIDS site needed to be clean, safe, less congested, friendlier to activities and more inclusive. They began imagining the Komtar area with greenery creating pleasant sceneries of both nature and urban life, with pedestrian-friendly roads and smooth traffic. The public basically aspired to emulate public spaces that worked, citing examples like New York Times Square and Singapore’s famous Orchard Road.

The George Town BIDS (GT BIDS) company was formed in June 2012. Led by PDC general manager Datuk Rosli Jaafar, GT BIDS plans to make this dream a reality by having a standardised sidewalk in the whole area which would be both eco and disabled-friendly. Traffic along the streets has always been crowded but increasing car parks and improving public transportation will hopefully solve this problem. GT BIDS wants to create a people-friendly environment where shopping families can spend the evening, by improving the security and comfort of the area. Camera surveillance may be a solution, but there are also plans to hire BIDS ambassadors to patrol the area to maintain security and also to help tourists or shoppers find their way. A way-finding system will be implemented in the whole BIDS area as well in order to further demarcate the area. The possibilities for improvements are endless.

GT BIDS will eventually employ staff to manage the area. For now, stakeholders have been working together to design a logo for the company. It is an important first step towards seeing how these different businesses can work in a group setting. We can expect to see more greenery along Jalan Dato' Keramat. Work is already underway to have trees planted. It is the first greening project in George Town BID and its success will dictate how other greening projects will be run. Stakeholders are also planning to add some excitement to the area by putting up decorative lighting along the roads. Decorations like this will give George Town BID sophistication and a facelift.

A lot of work remains to be done before we can compare the Komtar area to Times Square or Orchard Road but cooperation between stakeholders shows promising signs that George Town BID can become the next landmark for Penang. The success of the project will generate more business for its members and will spur growth in Penang. Perhaps more importantly, having taken the initiative to form Asia’s first BID, the pioneering members of GT BIDS have shown that once again “Penang leads” in urban innovation in Malaysia and the region.

Tan Yi Yang is currently studying economics at the University of Southern California.

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