By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; B06
Calling the city's unemployment rate a "ticking time bomb," D.C. mayoral candidate Vincent C. Gray unveiled a detailed plan Wednesday that he said would create jobs and spur economic development to overcome city's high unemployment rate.
The Democrat's 14-page initiative, which he announced before 50 supporters and labor and business leaders at Ray's: The Steaks at East River, in Northeast, is designed to infuse his campaign with substance while attempting to undercut Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's argument that he deserves another term because the city has prospered under his leadership.
Despite new condominium buildings, grocery stores and retail shops sprouting up in neighborhoods across the city since Fenty (D) took office in 2006, Gray says the mayor's administration has been too slow to address the city's unemployment rate, at nearly 10 percent.
"There are too many people in this city wondering where their next paycheck is going to come from," said Gray, the D.C. Council chairman. "We all have a stake in this. . . . My plan is dynamic and far-reaching."
Gray, whose plan was drafted after weeks of deliberation among his advisers and dozens of local business and labor officials, vowed to revamp the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, bolster requirements that city contractors hire D.C. residents, and invest more in transportation, the arts and funds used to retain and create small businesses. He said he wants to work more closely with the federal government to develop a new Department of Homeland Security complex on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Anacostia to attract industry and small businesses to the area, and he wants to forge closer ties to the hospitality and tourism industries while recruiting more finance-related and green technology firms to the city.
As the mayoral primary race enters its final six weeks, Gray plans to campaign heavily on the city's jobless rate and his plans for broadening the city's economic revitalization into more neighborhoods. Beyond helping him win voters, campaign advisers say Gray's focus on unemployment fits into his "one city" message of being a mayor who could bridge racial and economic divides.
Perhaps no better statistic signifies the divide in the District between the classes than unemployment. While only three percent of the residents of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods in Ward 3 in Upper Northwest lack jobs, the unemployment rate soars to nearly 30 percent in Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River. The disparity has fueled the discontent that the city's poorest residents feel with the Fenty administration, making it difficult for Fenty to take credit for the new recreational centers, parks and schools built since taking office.
But a few hours after Gray unveiled his plan, Fenty announced that he had secured $2.5 million in federal stimulus funds to provide job training to 1,300 residents, mostly in wards 5, 7 and 8. "In response to the very challenging economic conditions created by the national recession, we have been making an unprecedented investment in workforce development and job training for the people of the District of Columbia," he said.
Gray's plan, "Creating Real Economic Opportunity for All," does not include many headline-grabbing initiatives, but his supporters say it's one of the most comprehensive economic development strategies ever put forward by a mayoral candidate. "All in all, I think his economic development platform answered the old 'where's the beef' question loud and clear," said Jeff Smith, a developer who is backing Gray.
Despite its level of detail, Gray's proposal could reinforce Fenty's criticism that the council chairman would revert to a bureaucratic style of governing. The plan contains several references to "task forces," commissions and "strategic plans" but offers no specific goal for how many jobs would be created under a Gray administration.
Gray was also unavailable to say Wednesday how he would pay for his proposals, such as increasing the supply of workforce housing and creating a "District Green Initiative" to "create thousands of green jobs." And although the plan calls for creating a "tax and regulatory framework that makes sense for local businesses," Gray said he is unsure if he would actually propose a reduction in business or commercial real estate taxes.
But the plan is likely to intensify the debate among business leaders over whether the city needs Gray's deliberate, detailed approach to creating jobs or Fenty's style to fast-track projects to completion.
Jim Dinegar, executive director of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which has endorsed Fenty, said that part of the city's jobless rate stems from a high concentration of ex-offenders. Fenty, Dinegar said, has helped rebrand the Washington region to companies across the country by working to improve schools, combat crime and expedite the business-permitting process.
"There has been a dramatic turnaround," said Dinegar, noting that downtown office vacancies are falling and numerous development projects have continued under the mayor's leadership despite the recession.
Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Gray, countered that the city needs "a more holistic" approach to job creation.
"Economic development is more than shovels in the ground and real estate projects and ribbon cuttings," Lang said. "Gray gets that."