Montgomery County is 507 square miles with a government headquartered in Rockville.
That wasn’t going to cut it for the group of business owners, residents and civic activists that in the late 80′s and early 90′s saw a rapidly developing downtown Bethesda lacking a desired level of direct government services.
“Montgomery County is a huge place. Even 20 years ago it was a big place,” said Bruce Adams, the Bethesda resident and then member of County Council who now works for the county government. “There was this wonderful urban district board and it wanted a little freedom so there would be more direct service to the community. And it wasn’t just better clean-up, but better entertainment.”
In the 20 years since that board created the Bethesda Urban Partnership, the mostly government-funded nonprofit has grown from two to 35 full-time employees with a growing list of responsibilities.
Since Carol Trawick, Ben King, Bob Eastham and other prominent Bethesda business leaders and residents helped start BUP, it has produced a busy calendar of arts and entertainment programming and facilities. In 2006, it took over the contract for the free shuttle service that travels around downtown and got into the work of easing traffic congestion.
“It feels like it happened so organically. That residents and businesses kind of got together and said, ‘This is what we want.’ They were just people who were passionate about their community,” said BUP marketing and communications director Stephanie Coppula.
As downtown Bethesda undergoes a new wave of development — with a major master plan that could put even more redevelopment on the horizon — the importance of the folks in the red Under Armour shirts will likely only grow in the next two decades.
“It will be interesting to see how our role does change and how it will evolve and what the next five years bring,” Coppula said. “Because I think there will probably be some changes.”
Bethesda is an unincorporated area of Montgomery County. But it was clear to some that the development that followed the opening of the Bethesda Metro station in 1984 was putting some stress on county services.
Adams said that’s why the county created its Regional Services Centers — which provide staffing and a county government facility directly committed to specific areas of the county. In Bethesda, though, that wasn’t enough and not all in county government were on board with providing for an Urban Partnership-like entity.
“There was a lot of pushback from the county. They said we were going to make mistake. They said, ‘they’ll embarass us,’” said BUP Executive Director David Dabney, who in 1994 represented the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce on the urban district board.
“It was always just, ‘Give us the chance, we will do it’” Dabney said. “We made it less bureaucratic and were more in-tune with the what the community needed.”
Now, BUP plants flowers, mows grass, picks up trash with its own trash truck, can help shovel snow, does certain brick sidewalk work and has trained its employees to help fill potholes.
“Potholes for example were never in the box they gave us. We told the county, ‘We’ve got the manpower. We just don’t have the material. We’ll put the material down and you won’t get any more calls from Bethesda,’” Dabney said. “That’s the kind of understanding we have now with the county. We can work together as a team with no hidden agendas, no me mentality. It truly is a partnership and that’s what it always should be seen as.”
Much of BUP’s funding comes from county government contracts paid for through fees and fines collected in the public parking garages, lots and curbside meters of downtown Bethesda. There’s also a property tax on commercial and non-commercial property in the PLD.
In FY13, Montgomery County transferred about $2.8 million from the PLD fund to the Bethesda Urban District, which BUP manages. In the same fiscal year, about $3.4 million from an urban district tax on real and personal property paid by developers went into BUP’s contract with the county.
“I was on the Council and we said, this is crazy,” said Adams, who credited then-District 1 Councilmember Betty Ann Krahnke for helping the effort. “We thought these people are going to do a great job if we give them the ability to make some choices. They’re going to spend that money well. It’s been a 20-year success story.”
Dabney has been at BUP for 15 years. Deputy Executive Director Jeff Burton has been there as long. Many of the other employees have been at BUP long enough to learn fluent English through the organization’s in-house ESOL programs.
Coppula, who runs BUP’s four-person team in charge of marketing and events, started at BUP 14 years ago when she was 20.
“Looking back, to be able to do the things that we’re doing is just amazing,” Coppula said.
While it’s easy to see the red trucks and employees responsible for street maintenance, part of BUP has evolved into a powerful marketing arm for downtown Bethesda.
The Arts & Entertainment District has its own board and BUP helps that group of residents promote, manage and find sponsors for events including painting exhibitions, artist workspaces, outdoor concerts and movies and a two-year-old documentary film festival. Coppula said next year will probably bring a new songwriting competition.
BUP is in charge of the Taste of Bethesda, what is likely downtown Bethesda’s most attended event. Organizing for this year’s gathering has already started.
“There’s so much happening in the arts in the Washington-Baltimore region. We want to have a place for that in Bethesda,” Coppula said. “It’s very competitive. You have to say, ‘How do we make sure people know all of these great things happening in Bethesda.’”
Once people get into Bethesda, they must get around. In 2006, BUP took over operation of the Bethesda Trolley before Ride On completely shut it down. In 2011, BUP switched out the old-school trolleys for sleek, modern Circulator buses similar to the vehicles in downtown D.C.
Last month, the Bethesda Circulator service provided for 31,000 passenger trips on a roughly two-mile route connecting Woodmont Triangle, the Bethesda Metro and Bethesda Row.
Now, as county planners embark on a new master plan they hope will bring more greenspace to the downtown, Dabney said it seems BUP will be asked to to add “space management,” to its list of responsibilities.
“The question you always hear is, who’s going to manage that space? Developers who contribute to that space don’t necessarily want that on their plate,” Dabney said. “There’s a proven management team here at BUP that’s able to take those things on. As this stuff has materialized, people have started to say, ‘This is looking like something else that you’re going to have to do.’”
An in-depth Office of Legislative Oversight report on BUP last October led to the county reauthorizing the urban district corporation for another five years.
Last week, past and present BUP Board members, employees and others involved got together for a reception to celebrate 20 years at BUP’s Gallery B art gallery.
Dabney and company hope BUP is around for at least another 20.
“It was always about what will be the best for the future of Bethesda and what we can live with,” Dabney said. “It worked.”
Some photos via BUP