December 24, 2013

East of the Anacostia River commercial corridors in the District could get a New Year’s gift from mayoral contender and D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). He has said he will introduce legislation next month to authorize the mayor to create business improvement districts (BIDs) in Wards 7 and 8 and provide up to $500,000 a year, for up to five years, to help seed the business tax base there.

BIDs were first created in the city more than 10 years ago, when large swaths of downtown were void of significant commercial activity. They typically allow for self-taxing by business owners, who use the money raised to enhance public safety, cleanliness and the streetscape. Such improvements have helped lure investors and developers to eight commercial corridors. But businesses in Wards 7 and 8 lacked the financial capacity to undertake such a plan on their own.

A BID “starts putting the building blocks in place for things to happen,” Evans told me this month. “As these neighborhoods develop, the quality of life improves for everybody.”

Large sums of the District’s social-service tax dollars are spent in Wards 7 and 8, which have the highest rates of unemployment in the city. Smart, targeted development could affect those numbers while expanding the middle class. Which mayoral candidate is most likely to bring that about?

Evans said his “leadership knowledge and experience” with “major and minor projects” such as the Washington Convention Center, Gallery Place and the Whole Foods store at 14th and P streets NW make him uniquely qualified to advance the city’s economic development agenda. He said he has been talking with a group of more than 20 east of the river African-American business owners and leaders, including Stanley Jackson, head of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, in an attempt to link businesses with investors outside their communities.

“We have tremendous assets that are undervalued and underproducing,” Jackson told me, citing the area’s proximity to downtown, Nationals Park and the Washington Navy Yard. He called east of the river “the last hurrah. Now we’re into real neighborhood development.”

But some folks see Evans’s BID proposal as pandering. They say he’s just trolling for east-of-the-river votes. Said Jackson: “Conversations [with Evans] occurred long before he even announced” his candidacy for mayor.

That may be true. However, there’s a reason the illegal 2010 “shadow campaign” that allegedly operated on behalf of Vincent C. Gray focused on Wards 7 and 8. There are more registered Democrats in each of those communities — 51,174 in Ward 7 and 47,286 in Ward 8 — than in Ward 3 (37,260), according to the Board of Elections’ Aug. 31 report. With the large field, candidates in the 2014 Democratic primary are searching for leverage. Properly corralled, east of the river could provide a critical edge.

Undoubtedly, Gray, who is seeking reelection, will return to the scene of the crime, hoisting a planned Wal-Mart, the possible location of a Microsoft innovation center on the campus of St. Elizabeths and improvements to other government buildings as proof that he delivered on his promise of economic development east of the river. But unemployment remains high and significant retail or other private commercial activities extremely low. Many residents are not happy.

“All roads lead east of the river,” said council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large), who is hoping to capture those disaffected voters who went for Gray in 2010. As evidence that he would be more effective than his opponents, Orange cited his neighborhood development bona fides (Home Depot and the NoMa Metro station, both in Ward 5, for example), as well as his recent push for the increase in the minimum wage; his role in the resolution of the dispute between the government and food-truck owners; and his long advocacy for small businesses.

“Look at what I have been able to achieve as a council member. That’s an example of what I’ll achieve as mayor,” Orange said.

His documented ethical lapses have been used by his opponents to blind residents to his success. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has proved the most effective at weaponizing Orange against Orange. While opponents such as Evans and Orange may tout an overall longer council history, Wells can point to H Street NE as evidence of his own economic magic. “The biggest economic development that can be done is investing in young people,” he said. “When young people become educated and empowered, their families change, and that is transformational.”

Creating BIDs east of the river is “certainly a first step; they could deal with some low-hanging fruit,” Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) told me last week, adding that she has been “startled by the disconnect” in those communities and that their “distrust of the government is palpable.”

“They are tired of hearing about the cranes that aren’t benefiting their lives,” continued Bowser. She promised to create a deputy mayor for east-of-the-river strategy “to change the paradigm of opportunities. I’m not talking about constituent services. I’m talking about a real, deliverable action plan.”

It may be heady for east-of-the-river residents to have politicians falling over each other, pledging to provide jobs, services and business opportunities. But this is not the first time. Wards 7 and 8 have been stagecraft for campaigns for at least three decades. When the votes are counted and the lights go out, however, they soon feel the sting of neglect and betrayal.

Will 2014 bring more of the same? It’s on them — not the candidates — to make sure it doesn’t.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com