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Neighborly Introductions

Medrano says Target came out to see the theater when it was
Medrano says Target came out to see the theater when it was "just a big mudhole" in Columbia Heights. (By Leah L. Jones For The Washington Post)
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By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

Target won't officially open its doors in Columbia Heights until Wednesday, but the retailer has been courting community groups in the rapidly changing neighborhood since it decided to move there.

It is sending students from nearby ABC Public Charter School on a field trip to Philadelphia this spring, with stops at the African American Museum and the Liberty Bell. It has donated $40,000 to the Dance Institute of Washington over the past two years for outreach and children's programs. And since 2004, it has been the lead sponsor of Gala Hispanic Theatre.

"They came out to the [theater] when it was just a big mudhole in the back and spoke with us about what our dreams were," Gala co-founder Rebecca Medrano said.

Target announced its plan to open in Columbia Heights in 2002 as part of the DC USA development that will include Best Buy and Bed Bath & Beyond. The company said such donations are critical to integrating itself into a neighborhood when opening stores. Residents are often concerned about whether traffic will increase around a store, how local businesses will be affected and whether the community will lose its flavor -- particularly when a big-box store comes to town. By contributing to local nonprofit groups, retailers hope to foster goodwill with their new neighbors.

"We go in early and really ensure that we are listening and learning the needs of a local community . . . and as appropriate, building relationships on the front-end of the store opening," said Laysha Ward, Target's vice president of community relations. "We're not just building stores; we're helping to build the community."

Target is not the only retailer to employ such a strategy. When Wal-Mart opened a store in Landover Hills last year -- its first inside the Beltway -- it designated the site as a job and opportunity zone, where it will offer help to small businesses. The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer spent two years negotiating with residents over how the store would be run (no guns or ammunition are sold, for example) and how it would look. The company is in the process of selecting which local businesses will receive grants.

Much of Wal-Mart's charitable giving is done through its more than 3,000 stores across the country. In 2006, the company foundation handed out more than $301 million in cash and products, topping the list of corporate donations for Fortune 500 companies, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. It is also expected to rank first for 2007 giving when the newsletter publishes its annual survey in the spring.

Target donated $168 million in 2006, ranking 31st among Fortune 500 companies. That amount represented 4.4 percent of its pretax profit, according to the newsletter, while Wal-Mart's donations amounted to 1.7 percent of its pretax profit.

"Companies decide their giving strategies based on what customers they want to appeal to," said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. "Most corporate philanthropy is aligned in a way with what the company wants to achieve."

For Target, famous for partnering with high-end designers to create mass-market merchandise, that means focusing on donations to the arts and education. Dance Institute of Washington founder Fabian Barnes said he first contacted Target in 2003, two years after the group received permission from the city to build a studio one block north of where the store now sits. He spent several years courting the company before it offered support for its outreach program into local schools and youth organizations.

The dance studio site had been vacant since the 1968 riots that devastated the community; now students practice pli┬┐s in front of floor-to-ceiling windows that look down on the street construction below. The group has taken children to see performances of "The Nutcracker" and helped teach language arts and vocabulary through dance. The group received $15,000 last year and $25,000 the previous year from Target.

"When I found dance, I found my voice," Barnes said. "You can use dance to reach and get out of a child what you may not be able to get out with other forms" of communication.

At Gala Hispanic Theatre across the street from Target, volunteers from the chain helped with marketing and promotion and designed the group's logo. The company has also underwritten performances of a bilingual children's play during the weekends and an annual street festival.

"There were those who opposed the big-box stores because of the feeling that it was going to change the neighborhood. But the reality is that for 30 years there were no stores -- not even mom and pop stores," Medrano said. "The fact that a store that is as committed to the community as Target is the anchor is incredible. It was the right time and place for them to move in."

Target has also become a prominent donor to several high-profile Washington events. It is one of the main sponsors of the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival and the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. It declined to say how much it spends on individual contributions. Such large-scale grants are handled through the company's headquarters. But the new store will also be able to donate smaller amounts of money and dispatch volunteers.

"Our giving, while national in scope, is very local in terms of impact," Ward said. "Our guests really see Target through the eyes of their local store."

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