Investing Where They Investigate

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ron Wright spent three years searching for the right locale to open the high-end cigar store and cocktail lounge he had dreamed of before he finally renovated a worn Florida Avenue rowhouse in Northeast Washington.

The location, on the southern edge of Trinidad's crime-scarred streets, seemed risky. But Wright had a unique perspective on the area, and he saw hope where many did not. For the past four years, he has patrolled the area as a D.C. police lieutenant.

Across town in Southeast, a former colleague of Wright's, Master Patrol Officer Clarence "C.J." Jackson, chose an equally troubled area in which to invest his money and off-duty hours. Later this month, he plans to open an IHOP in the Congress Heights area of Southeast. The pancake house will be Ward 8's first sit-down franchise restaurant, he said.

In mirror endeavors, the two officers are investing in the neighborhoods they have sworn to protect, at a time when the city's development boom is bringing major changes to the streets they patrol. In starting their own businesses, they are expanding the traditional notion of police officers moonlighting as security guards, looking both to maintain the gains the neighborhoods have made and to profit from them.

"What I got from C.J. was inspiration to be an entrepreneur," Wright said of Jackson, who has been buying properties in the District with his relatives for 15 years. The officers worked together several years ago in the 7th Police District in Southeast, where they first talked about owning their own businesses.

"I love my government job, and he does too, but there's still something else," said Wright, 39. "Both of these communities can use [businesses] like ours."

Wright, who supervises patrol officers just east of North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue NE, had watched as abandoned rowhouses along nearby H Street NE were transformed into shops and bars. In just a couple of years, the corridor has become a nightlife hub.

"I was thinking, 'Man, there's got to be something I can do. I want to do my thing,' " Wright said.

Fifteen years after backing out of a deal to open a sandwich shop, Wright tried again in December, opening Capitol Hill Premium Cigars and Tobacco, a store and members-only lounge.

When the 16-year police veteran is off the beat, he sells cigars in a two-story rowhouse in the 1000 block of Florida Avenue NE and rents humidors for up to $450 a year. When he is on patrol, his wife, Melvenia, or his parents guide customers through boxes of flavored cigars from around the world.

In a back room, a barber plies his trade, and a tailor is on-site every Friday. The business comes across as "a gentleman's place" catering to African Americans, just as Wright imagined it.

Upstairs, customers gather against the soft orange walls of the lounge to smoke, have a drink and chat.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company