A 'Renaissance,' But at What Cost?

The new Target store in Columbia Heights is part of the DC USA retail center.
The new Target store in Columbia Heights is part of the DC USA retail center. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
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Sunday, March 16, 2008

DC USA has been hailed as a "renaissance project" for Columbia Heights. The Post stated that the 500,000-square-foot retail center is "erasing the last vestiges of scars left by riots that ravaged the neighborhood 40 years ago" [front page, March 4]. True, the streets do look cleaner. More people are walking around. The visible scars are gone; they have been covered by brick and mortar. But one needs only to scratch the veneer beneath the neon lights to see that such a project can prove to be just another quick fix: the economic development equivalent of crack.

The recipe is simple. Take a savvy developer, mix in seasoned politicians, leave out the locals, and add a lot of public funding and giveaways, and there you have it: an instant renaissance.

After much haggling by local merchants and community leaders concerned about the impact of the project on local businesses, a mere 15,000 square feet was allocated for locally owned enterprises. These entrepreneurs were not even at the table when the deal was cut. About $45 million in public money was awarded to DC USA. The 200 businesses along 14th Street NW between Kenyon and Shepherd streets, which make up about 300,000 square feet, were allocated a mere $2 million worth of facade work and other improvements -- hardly enough to offset the subsidies received by DC USA. The message to independent and locally owned businesses is clear: Stay away.

Year after year, independent and local businesses are finding it harder to compete with national chain stores. Washington's local businesses have seen neighborhoods change dramatically in a very short time. Take Chinatown, for instance. With the exception of the lettering on some signs, there is nothing Chinese about it. In short order, the historically Latino Columbia Heights neighborhood will meld into another "Any City, USA." This homogenization of neighborhoods and whole cities is detrimental to the creativity and preservation of local flavor.

A recent survey conducted by the Independent Business Forum, a trade association representing independently owned businesses, showed that 82 percent of consumers value local and independently owned businesses and, given a choice, will choose local over chain stores. Just take a look at any top 10 list of favorite places to eat or shop. How often do you see a chain store on that list? Not often.

Many studies have shown that independently owned local businesses are a boon for the local economy -- they are connected to the local community not just by the real estate that they own or lease but also because their owners live and do business there. They hire local architects, local lawyers, local accountants, and local support staff and give back to their community in much larger numbers because they are directly accountable to it. Each dollar spent in a locally owned business circulates between five and 15 times; that means you are creating a $5 to $15 value for the community. In contrast, 80 percent of each dollar spent in chain stores leaves the city.

Small businesses are not asking for special favors, just a level playing field. A free market can thrive when it is truly free and gives every participant an equal and fair shot at success.

-- Andy Shallal


-- Kim Weeks


Andy Shallal is chair of Think Local First and owner of Busboys and Poets. Kim Weeks is co-chair of Think Local First and owner of Boundless Yoga.

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