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New D.C. economic chairman supports Ward 5 Wal-Mart

By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, January 17, 2011; 9

Dozens of developers gathered at the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership last week for a meet-and-greet with Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who has been on the D.C. Council since 2007 but just became chairman of the economic development committee this month. For those who missed him in person, here is an introduction.

You've worked at bringing jobs and development to Ward 5. How does being economic chairman expand your role?

I am chair at a challenging time. We don't have the good times where we can just give TIF [tax increment financing] dollars and other things constantly or build a new stadium with taxpayers' money the way we've done. We have to be more like business people and find people that want to partner. . . . All of these developments are tough to do, whether I want to look at McMillan [a former reservoir where development is planned], whether I want to look at St. Elizabeths, whether I want to look at Walter Reed, they all require huge infrastructure investments and we have to figure out how to get the most bang for the buck.

You think a Wal-Mart-anchored development in Ward 5 could bring 1,200 jobs. Will you support Wal-Mart opening there?

I'm supporting it in what I believe is an overall plan that makes sense for the District of Columbia. I think I'm most supportive because I think it represents a total private investment of a corporation coming here. Here's an opportunity where we're taking no city dollars and trying to create industry. We also have the chance to change how Wal-Mart is viewed because it's in the nation's capital. . . . You can look at how can you help Wal-Mart be a better help to small business development.

The mayoral election showed a split over the effect new development has had. Are there projects that you think balanced the interests of new residents with those who have lived here multiple generations?

St. Martin's Apartments, in Ward 5, is affordable housing, direct benefits to the citizens in Ward 5. Here we had a piece of land that was vacant and now we have residents who are living there, who are paying taxes, at an affordable rate. Changed the whole fabric of the community. . . . I'll give you another example where we are really coming up to speed: Rhode Island Avenue. If you really look at Rhode Island Avenue, that should have been DC-USA [the Target-anchored development in Columbia Heights]. I don't want to get into the politics of it, but how we could do just Home Depot and Giant and not do that whole site -- we could have been transforming Rhode Island and we missed an opportunity.

There is currently a cap on debt that prevents the city from borrowing for new projects. Are you interested in changing the debt cap to free up real estate subsidies?

I think we have proposed looking at a different debt cap structure. I really have to be cautious of that. I think what we really have to do is figure out how we build up public-private partnerships that make sense for the city. For example, Wal-Mart wants to be here. . . . but we also have to have standards that they adhere to in being here.

Instead of borrowing, the city has been using tax abatements to incentivize development. Do you support the way they are being used?

I've been a supporter of many of them because I think a lot of times you got to look at what we're getting for some of these sites. For example, St. Martin's. So you're not getting [property] taxes and in lieu of taxes you're [expanding an income] tax base for the city. So I think it's important that we continue to do that and I think we have to look at how some of these tax abatements support small business, too.

You didn't support a tax deal for bringing CoStar Group to the District, however, and that created jobs for city residents.

It wasn't that I wasn't in support of CoStar, it was that I wasn't in support of saying CoStar can come downtown, because that was easy. I'm sitting over here with the Hecht's warehouse [on New York Avenue NE], why wasn't that on the table? [CoStar headquarters wound up on L Street NW.]

I don't think CoStar would have gone to the Hecht's warehouse.

Well, we don't know that unless we give them the right deal. Or Northrop Grumman was trying to come. People don't understand the square footage and the amount of space that sits there on New York Avenue. . . . It could have changed that whole neighborhood. So that was my whole point -- what's in it for us?

You also introduced a bill to require developers of heavily subsidized projects to have project labor agreements. Why is that a good idea?

I think the name "PLA" created more controversy than the real substance because when you really get down to negotiating, [the differences were] in the margins.

But it still required a PLA to be signed.

It required that we invest in our workforce and say that any dollars that we spend from our city monies go back into creating opportunities for our residents. So how better do we do that?

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