Contrary to those "D.C. on the Grow" signs that Mayor Marion Barry adopted as his economic development theme last year, the city's economy hasn't kept pace with the highly visible building boom spawned by private development in downtown Washington.

What's more, the District's economic development problems and needs are intensifying, while federal aid is diminishing, a consultant's study prepared for the city last spring concludes.

Economic and financial consultant Judith W. Richards found -- as have others in recent years -- that retailers, wholesalers and light manufacturers continue to move out of the District, citing a lack of expansion space, high taxes and government indifference.

Although business opportunities have been identified and some businesses have been encouraged to invest in the District, "There have not been enough successes to date," Richards said in the study, which was commissioned by the D.C. Office of Economic and Business Development last December.

After a four-month investigation and analysis of economic development activities in the District, Richards concluded that the city is "at a crossroads."

Although the report was presented to city officials more than six months ago, it has been kept under wraps and is being massaged by yet another committee appointed by the mayor to study economic development.

Numerous committees and several studies have addressed the issue of economic development over the past eight years, but there still is no single agency or clearly identifiable plan for implementing economic development projects in the District.

The Richards study provides the kind of blueprint that long has been needed for economic development in the District; however, few are aware of the plan's existence. City officials apparently have decided that it's not in the public interest to release it.

Lawrence Schumake, the OEBD's executive director, agrees with the thrust of the Richards study, adding that it contains "very useful information" and that his office "began to utilize some of her recommendations immediately."

None of those recommendations has been made public, however. Schumake defends his decision not to go public with the study by explaining that "it's a proper concern on my part not to preempt" the mayor, who is said to be planning to establish a so-called super economic development agency.

The mayor and his advisers may not agree with some of Richards' findings and conclusions, but the study offers a viable plan for coordinating economic development in the District.

The Richards study, a copy of which was made available to The Washington Post, notes that the District's economic development program is relatively new and that most efforts have focused on improving the overall business climate.

In the meantime, however, Richards' research led to the conclusion that the District shares many of the economic development problems of other cities: significant loss of business, a high concentration of low-skilled persons, heavy dependence on real estate tax revenues, and a shortage of developable industrial land.

Her research here and in other cities yielded these findings and recommendations:

* The District needs to develop a more rational system for dealing with businesses and for integrating existing and planned incentive programs. Therefore, it should establish a public-private economic development corporation that would have sole responsibility for coordinating business investment projects.

* The District owns more than 2,000 parcels of land, much of it underutilized or vacant. With no single agency responsible for identifying the land's economic development potential and disposing of it in a way that produces maximum impact, several parcels have been declared surplus and offered for sale to the highest bidder.

Given those circumstances, the District should form a land bank to be administered by the new economic development corporation, Richards recommends.

* More attention needs to be focused on planning industrial areas such as the New York Avenue corridor. "These areas are not generating the maximum number of blue-collar jobs they could with a concerted economic development effort," Richards said. "Moreover, the lack of a cohesive plan deters businesses from investing there and neighborhood residents from backing any economic development initiatives close to their homes."

* The roles of various existing organizations involved in economic development should be clarified and, where possible, those organizations should be combined.

A careful reading of the Richards study suggests that it is a sound economic development guide for the District. Subjecting it to further months of delay in the political, bureaucratic and committee processes hampers economic development when it is most needed.