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D.C. mayor candidates have competing visions for economic development

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By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, August 16, 2010

When William A. Hanbury was president of Destination D.C., marketing the city for conventions and tourism, he pulled out all the stops to land the International AIDs Conference, spending three years wooing convention organizers, paying more than $5,000 to fly them here from Geneva and getting a helping hand from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in facilitating travel for convention goers living with HIV.

What he could not get was 15 minutes with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

D.C. won the AIDs conference anyway; about 25,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries will arrive in July 2012 to rent the city's hotel rooms, hire its taxis and eat in its restaurants.

But Fenty lost Hanbury. Now president and chief executive of the United Way of the National Capital Area, Hanbury is leading a small pool of other economic development and workforce leaders who -- feeling scorned by the current mayor -- consider mayoral candidate Vincent C. Gray (D), chairman of the D.C. Council, to be a worthy steward of the city's economy. Fenty, by contrast, has received support from nearly every real estate developer in the city, allowing him to amass nearly $5 million in political donations with less than a month to go before the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

Fenty came into office with a mission to execute many of the development plans teed up by Mayor Anthony Williams and began by moving two public-private development entities, National Capital Revitalization and the Anacostia Waterfront Development, into his control. But since the recession began, he has been criticized for focusing too heavily on real estate projects at the expense of other industries -- like tourism - that might lead to jobs accessible to the city's unemployed residents. "In the 7 1/2 years I ran Destination D.C., we invited the mayor at least 20 times to events, and he only came once," Hanbury said.

Fenty's campaign spokesman, Sean Madigan, disputed Hanbury's characterization of the mayor's interest in tourism. He said the mayor's top aides are regularly involved in drawing and facilitating conferences and that Valerie Santos, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, is a Destination D.C. board member.

The Fenty administration lists nearly 30 properties for which it has started or completed construction, but recently many of the public properties that the mayor has put out to market have received little interest or resulted in partnerships that have stalled. Meanwhile, the city's unemployment rate is stuck above the national average.

Santos said she understands "frustration" over the disconnect between the push for real estate projects and jobs, particularly when it comes to training the city's residents.

"There is agreement that there's an issue and there's an agreement that there's a need for some cost-efficient solution, and I anticipate that that is something that we're going to be moving forward in the next couple of years," she said.

What would economic development look like under Mayor Vincent Gray? Industry leaders such as Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District -- whom Gray also now counts as an adviser -- have been pushing for a focus on industries that will fuel job growth.

The chairman said he intends to extend his support for job training. He has backed the new community college within the University of the District of Columbia, which is rapidly assembling new campus locations. He has also proposed major reforms of the program requiring city contractors and development partners to hire D.C. residents, and has picked up Fenty's former jobs director, Summer Spencer, for advice in that area.

Should Gray win, he would inherit a real estate portfolio that is still easier to criticize than to revive, given the ongoing economic slowdown. Gray prides himself on backing two major developments east of the Anacostia River, Skyland Shopping Center and the intersection of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road SE, since he joined the council in 2005. Five years later, construction has begun on neither.

As mayor, Gray said he would jump-start development by focusing on fewer projects, but when asked which he would put on the back burner, he named Poplar Point, the Anacostia property that Fenty has also set aside for the moment.

Gray said the city needs to do a better job attracting companies, but as council chairman he opposed incentive packages aimed at drawing CoStar Group and Northrop Grumman. The CoStar deal brought the company to downtown D.C. from Bethesda and requires the firm to hire 100 D.C. residents. Gray said the CoStar deal was arranged in "haphazard" fashion.

There is no question, however, that Gray has picked up the support of a wide array of business leaders. Both the president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, Barbara Lang, and the president of the AFL-CIO Washington D.C. Metro Council, Joslyn Williams, have recorded videos in his support. Developer Charles C. "Sandy" Wilkes, a longtime friend, said Gray "has spent his life reflecting on and thinking strategically about economic development."

Hanbury is often rumored to be the candidate's choice for deputy mayor, though Gray said he hasn't made a pick yet. "This is what I told him," Hanbury said. "I have a job at the United Way and I'm not looking for a job. But I believe in what you're doing."


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