Opinions

D.C.’s retailer bill will do more harm than good

Anthony Williams was mayor of the District of Columbia from 1999 to 2007.

The District has come a long way in building a stronger private-sector economy, but this progress is still tentative. It can easily be undermined, if not reversed, by enactment of the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), which the D.C. Council passed last week.

The District has built one of the country’s most powerful local economies, largely because we attract a large share of the region’s economy. For instance, the Urban Land Institute has designated the District as the No. 2 site in the United States for retail investment. This is no accident. Since 1999, delegations from the District — mayors, council members, business leaders and not-for-profit executives — have traveled each year to the International Convention of Shopping Centers, the world’s largest real estate convention, to tell business investors that the District of Columbia is open for business.

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The first year, we sought a place in the ICSC convention hall but ended up holding 31 appointments with prospective retailers at a folding table set up in hallways and parking lots. Since then, the District’s stature and commitment to the event have grown to where our city, via its DC Marketing Center, has one of the most polished and professional public-sector exhibitions at the convention. Last year, 400 meetings were held with prospective investors in our community.

Why have we gone to such efforts? Why have D.C. officials met yearly with firms, including Wal-Mart (yes, the retailer so reviled of late), and invited them to Washington? Because business investment leads to retail convenience and jobs, which lead to more business investment, more jobs, neighborhood amenities and, ultimately, the kind of virtuous cycle that we’re beginning to see in many areas of the city.

Regrettably, the LRAA, while well-intentioned, sends the opposite message: that the District is indifferent, if not hostile, to business. Moreover, for all the damage the bill will do to the D.C. business climate, it won’t help that many residents.

First, the bill is extremely narrow. Willie Sutton, the prolific 1930s bank robber,advised going where the money is, and this bill certainly does that. As D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) put it: “If this is about sticking it to Wal-Mart, we should be honest and say so.”

Second, the measure would motivate the companies that we’ve encouraged to explore a new, urban business model to default to the easier, well-traveled course: sticking with the suburbs, where the land is cheaper and the parking more ample.

Third, D.C. families are still short of quality and affordable retail options. I say this as someone who lives near Union Station and works in the central business district. Can we seriously say to residents east of the Anacostia River that shopping has never been better? Should we abandon the efforts of a series of mayoral administrations to regenerate the Skyland Shopping Center with a powerful retail anchor?

Some residents may have forgotten that the new community at East Capitol Dwellings was initiated as a tribute to Helen Foster-El, who lost her life protecting her grandchildren from gang gunfire. Huge amounts of civic energy and emotion are poured into building neighborhoods. A new anchor store at this site would also be a powerful example of a neighborhood renewal.

Fourth, the bill sends the message that the District can’t be relied on to cut a deal and stick to it. Our government was founded on a baseline of settled expectations. Every public-private partnership relies on this. A business investor should have confidence that when she makes a deal with the mayor and city council, the agreement will be the same on Day 1 and on Day 45. Whether the council can legally change a deal is not the point; the issue is whether it should effectively undo, at great cost, a set of agreements previously reached.

And if we change course on agreements in the near term, what does this say about our capacity to keep our longer-term commitments to the next generation?

Every District worker deserves a living wage. I support President Obama’s effort to boost the federal minimum wage. But even minimum-wage advocates agree that a strong economy is the best guarantee of jobs and good wages.

The damage this bill stands to inflict far outweighs its potential benefits. City officials have spent years boasting to large retailers and others about the District’s business environment. Are things different now?

I urge Mayor Vincent Gray to veto the Large Retailer Accountability Act, giving the council the opportunity to consider more productive alternatives.

 
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