The grand opening of Morton's Department Store on Georgia Avenue yesterday belies the serious state of the city's economy throughout that central corridor.
In renovating the building formerly occupied by Ida's Department Store at Georgia Avenue and Longfellow Street, Morton's not only fills a void created by the closing of Ida's; it adds a small measure of growth to the economy of the community.
But it will take many more new businesses and improvements to the Georgia Avenue commercial strip -- probably the longest in the District -- to ward off further blight and improve the economic base of that community.
Indeed, by opening its sixth Washington-area store on Georgia Avenue, Morton's opened the window to a dramatic example of the serious unemployment problem of nearby communities as well as the entire city.
Through the end of July -- the last month for which official figures are available -- the District's unemployment level had soared to 38,500, or 11.4 percent.
In the days preceding the opening of Morton's newest store, at least 2,000 of the city's unemployed lined up to apply for the 60 or 70 jobs to be filled by management.
"It was shocking," the president of the Lower Georgia Avenue Business and Professional Association recalled. "I thought it was a food line," Clifton N. West added.
It might have been shocking, but West concluded several months ago that business growth and expansion in the Georgia Avenue corridor are essential to economic development and increases in jobs.
"The businesses are here, and we need to start thinking of doing things to keep money flowing in the community," West said.
"This is a very key street," he added. "A majority of the land and businesses are owned by blacks. You will find no other street like that in the District ."
Indeed, no other street in the District is quite like Georgia Avenue in terms of the concentration of small businesses, most of them owned and operated by blacks. Hundreds of professional offices, small stores, restaurants and services and repair shops line both sides of the street for several miles.
Despite the concentration of businesses and the potential for growth, Georgia Avenue has been largely overlooked as a viable center of economic development, while most attention in that regard is being focused on downtown.
Only recently have District government agencies shown any interest in helping business people such as West develop plans for making Georgia Avenue a major commercial and jobs-producing center.
In fact, it was only after West and others demanded action that they were able to draw attention to the area. "The first thing we had to do was put pressure on the D.C. government to pick up the trash," West recalled.
"I think the government hasn't done too much before because it wasn't prodded," acknowledged Valerie Barry, special assistant to the mayor for boards and commissions.
Barry, a resident of the Georgia Avenue corridor, has been active as unofficial liaison between the D.C. government and the Lower Georgia Avenue Business and Professional Association. The community is threatened by blight, she pointed out, while other areas are being improved. "I didn't think it was fair," Barry remarked.
Now that West and his organization finally have gotten through to city officials, it remains to be seen how successful they are in convincing them that Georgia Avenue, like downtown, can be a major area of employment.
West envisions theaters, restaurants, department stores and high-rise office buildings along lower Georgia Avenue in the vicinity of Howard University. In fact, he is certain that market studies will show the area can support a major in-town shopping mall near the university.
"You've got about 14,000 students down there, and right now they shop in Prince George's and Montgomery County," West noted. "You've got a lot of buying power down there."
West, who is owner of Stat Medical Supplies Inc. and a partner in B&W Stat Laboratory Inc., is convinced that with help from the city and Howard University the economy of the area can be strengthened and that it will contribute significantly to the District's overall economy.
"You can take a community and change the community and change the people," West declared.
First, he must convince the mayor of that. But then, Georgia Avenue isn't downtown and the Georgia Avenue Business and Professional Association doesn't have the clout of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which played a major role in the development of the downtown plan unveiled by the mayor in July.
Instead of taking business people on a tour of private development sites downtown as he has done twice in the past year, the mayor might find it beneficial to the city's overall economy to take a detour to Georgia Avenue the next time he rolls out the VIP bus.