In one appearance after another before business groups in recent months, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has delivered the same message--"the news is good."
The mayor has used those occasions to recite what he calls a "litany of things that have happened since I've been mayor."
The news is good, he told the Greater Washington Board of Trade, largely as a result of "the positive turnaround our administration has been able to achieve to create a new atmosphere of confidence in the District on the part of our residents and the financial and investment communities."
Indeed, investor interest in the District has accelerated in the past two or three years, proof of which is apparent in an upsurge in downtown development. More than $400 million in new construction permits were issued in 1980, and $224 million in assessed value of new construction was added to the District's tax rolls last year.
At the same time, office vacancy rates continue to be the lowest in the nation despite fears that a glut of new space could stall the building boom.
Retail sales at downtown department stores, while far below growth for the area, were higher in September (the last month for which figures were available) than in the same month a year ago. Although inflation is an obvious factor in the increase, the $9.9 million figure is the highest reported by downtown department stores for any month in the past eight years.
High unemployment and a continuation of the flight to the suburbs by business firms notwithstanding, District residents can take pride in significant improvement in the city's financial and economic health, Barry believes.
But District residents and outsiders alike seemingly are unaware of the many factors that have produced a better climate for business, Barry complained during a recent interview. That will change, Barry promised as he sketched plans for a multifaceted campaign to promote and sell Washington as a tourist Mecca and a viable city for investors.
Barry gave a hint of what District residents can expect when he launched his "D.C. on the Grow" campaign in October with a tour of major construction projects where developers displayed the campaign theme on signs that they paid for.
"You haven't seen anything yet," he said recently when he was asked about the value of the signs. "You're going to see those signs everywhere on every major project that's going up. One morning you're going to wake up and they're going to be there."
That approach may be unique for the District but it's a fairly common one in other cities, the mayor contends.
Barry broke up laughing as he described a recent visit to the construction site of a large, low-income housing complex in Detroit. A sign at the project, bearing Detroit Mayor Coleman Young's name, "was almost as big as the first floor of the building," Barry remarked.
Increasingly, mayors are using similar vehicles to demonstrate their leadership, and "you're going to find that in the District," Barry promised.
"There's a sense in a lot of our major cities of pride and in any major city you go into you'll find the mayor's name on everything."
About 60 percent of the jobs in the District are in the private sector but Barry believes "it's to our advantage to enlist the support of the private sector not only in focusing on jobs for D.C. residents but to give them a sense that we're growing also."
That approach prompted a prominent Washington businessman to question Barry's motives in his support of business and economic development.
"I think too many people think a lot of his activities are too political and because they are political they don't serve the city's best interests," said the executive.
Still, a sizable segment of the business community gives Barry high marks for his support of business and economic development in the three years that he has been mayor.
Nonetheless, Barry is keenly aware that some businessmen still harbor doubts about his leadership as well as his interest in their concerns about the high costs of doing business in the District.
"When I first started my campaign for mayor I didn't have the established business community," the mayor acknowledged in a candid evaluation of his relationship with Washington business.
"I had the support of some people in the business community. The restaurant owners, small independent restaurant owners, a few of the small bankers and savings and loans . . . I didn't have the established bankers. I didn't have the established retailers. I didn't have the established corporate types with me in the primary and that's where it counts."
Barry said he was able to raise "a significant amount" of money in the business community after the Democratic primary "because the Democrats somehow or another come together" after their intraparty fights.
But the mayor left little doubt that he won't soon forget who failed to support him in those early days.
"I count support when it's tough," he said icily. "I count support before the primary as being real support."
Barry now believes his administration has proved that "I have been very good for the city from a business point of view."
Nonetheless, there still are nagging concerns about Barry's and the District government's attitude toward business. Barry related a story that underscores a lingering image some businessmen have of him as a strident activist and exponent of confrontation politics in the '60s and '70s.
A local businessman reportedly told the mayor not long ago that another member of the business fraternity worried aloud about supporting Barry for reelection, noting that he didn't vote for him in 1978.
Laughing as he recalled the story, Barry said he was told that his detractor described his reaction as "just a feeling. I just don't feel right about" Barry.
"I think you have some of that in the business community," Barry conceded. "People who know what I have done can see the record clearly. They see me accessible for jobs and business and how they go together but there still is a little uneasiness among some of them.
"They don't know what it is either," the mayor continued. "It's a little uneasiness in their stomachs."
On the other hand, Barry says he is encouraged by the number of businessmen who "have been very helpful in helping with some specific problems."
W. Reid Thompson, chairman of Potomac Electric Power Co., for example, "lent us six of his top managers to help us with our water-billing situation last spring," Barry recalled. The city has also received assistance from the Board of Trade in an effort to improve licensing and inspection procedures.
But the mayor takes full credit for what he considers substantial changes in the District's business and economic climate.
Prior to 1979, he maintained, "There really was not much of a philosophy in the District government about business development. There was no view that the government itself could either stimulate a better business climate or do things itself to generate concrete and specific examples of what we wanted to do."
One of the first things Barry did in that regard was to strengthen the District's Office of Business and Economic Development. Previously funded by federal grants, OBED now has a $778,000 appropriation in the District's budget, thanks to "a lot of hard work and lobbying on the part of business people and ourselves," Barry noted.
But the mayor takes even greater pride in policy decisions and leadership, which he described in detail as examples of "how we create jobs and economic development."
Before he was elected mayor, Barry contends, "Nobody thought about a policy in support of land writedowns" of city-owned property as inducements for development. A change in policy, he said, resulted from his suggestion to the District's Redevelopment Land Agency that it write down the cost of a parcel at 2nd Street and New Jersey Avenue NW where Union Labor Life Insurance Co. will build its headquarters.
Union Labor's move from New York will generate 1,500 permanent jobs, 750 of which are expected to go to District residents.
The Design Center now under construction at Fourth and D streets SW is another example of the District's use of land writedowns to induce business to invest in the city.
The facility, which was purchased by Chicago's Merchandise Mart and will house more than 200 office and home-furnishings showrooms, is being developed in an old refrigeration warehouse on land previously owned by the District. The $20 million investment by Merchandise Mart is expected to generate more than $3.3 million in tax revenues.
The property, which had been sitting idle for years, had been earmarked for federal office use. But Barry interceded and won approval for it to be returned to the District for development.
That, Barry emphasized, is "just another example of what either Larry Shumake director of the Office of Business and Economic Development has done or I have done to demonstrate our unyielding commitment to business development and to jobs in this town."
Barry's proudest accomplishment in that commitment was his determined campaign that won approval for construction of the convention center, which is scheduled to open later this year.
Many political allies still disagree about whether or not the center should have been built, but "they're gradually coming around," Barry said. "And I've been solid like a rock, supporting that center because it's going to generate a lot of activity around it."
"The mayor deserves a lot more kudos than people have given him in getting the center moving," said a local business leader, who requested anonymity. "He really took that on and pushed it.
"I really think the city has begun to take some steps to improve the business climate," he said.
The mayor's support of changes in the workmen's compensation law and his eventual signing of a bill to that effect was a significant signal to the business community, the businessman added.
But business people still chafe over delays and red tape in licensing and permit offices, a problem that Barry promises to correct by establishing a more streamlined system to expedite the process.
However, "the main gripe you hear is concern over escalating taxes," said Daniel J. Callahan II, chairman of the Mayor's Overall Economic Advisory Committee the past two years.
But, added Callahan, "It's difficult for the mayor to reduce some of those taxes unless he finds the money somewhere else. It's a Catch-22."
J. Pat Galloway, outgoing president of the Board of Trade, agrees that "there have been some encouraging things that have developed in the District." But Galloway, who stressed that the board represents business in the entire metropolitan area, believes the District has to be "more aggressive in its campaign in attracting and retaining business and look at other areas and see how they do it."
The District commissioned a study on business retention in 1980, a step that was undertaken, Barry explained, "to find out some facts scientifically why some people say they left here."
The $100,000 study by Brimmer & Co. Inc., economic and financial consultants, showed that many of the businesses that joined a decade-long exodus to the suburbs "regard the District government as unwilling or unable to cooperate with business." By and large, however, higher costs of doing business in the District was cited as a major factor in relocations to the suburbs.
The study concluded that the need for "more cooperative links between the District government and the local business community is apparent."
"There is a feeling by business in general that there is an unfriendly attitude between the city and business," observed Thomas J. Owen, chairman and chief executive officer of Perpetual American Federal Savings and Loan Association.
"I would hope that in 1982 we would see more recognition on the part of the city government and the administration that there is a need for a healthy business community in the District of Columbia and the benefits that would accrue from that," Owen continued.
City Council member Betty Ann Kane, a critic of the mayor and considered his toughest challenger in the next mayoral race, questions Barry's leadership in forging a better business climate.
"I perceive the government as essentially hostile, perhaps not intentionally, particularly where small businesses are concerned," said Kane.
"Real economic development occurs when small businesses expand. What businesses have to go through in terms of permits, licenses, et cetera, is not only discouraging but hostile."
Kane vowed that as a candidate and as mayor she would change that.
Kane added that as a member of the Council of Governments' economic advisory committee and the business education advisory council for the D.C. public schools, she has been "working on these problems long before I thought about running for mayor."
Meanwhile, while Barry stops short of saying flatly that he will stand for reelection, it's apparent that business and economic development will be critical issues in the campaign for mayor.
Management of the city's finances is certain to be another, but Barry is confident he has the upper hand there.
After much confusion last spring about the city's financial condition, Barry insists that final audited results to be released in a month will show the District government operating within budget.
Asked if the problem was as bad as it was reported, Barry declared: "It was worse. I didn't give the worst case. It would have been too shocking. There was a period when we were almost out of money."
The difficulties were laid at the feet of the previous administration but "we were able to turn it around because we had some good people working on the problem," said Barry.
Confident that he has engineered a turnaround, Barry says, ". . . politically I'm going to raise some questions about these other candidates who have never managed to even get a committee chairmanship. How are they going to manage a city?"