The federal government's plan to sell Camp Simms, a 24-acre parcel in Southeast Washington, provides the D.C. government with a significant opportunity to achieve one of its economic development goals.
Even though District officials have ruled out a direct purchase of the former National Guard facility, the city can play a pivotal role in salvaging the site for a viable economic development project.
But it takes two to tango, and developers have shown little or no interest thus far in investing in that area of the city known as Anacostia. The property is bordered by Alabama and Mississippi avenues and 13th and 15th streets SE. Few major businesses, in fact, have made any significant investment in Southeast in the past 15 years.
Commerce along major thoroughfares and adjoining streets in far Southeast is a largely unbroken pattern of small shops, service stations, fast-food restaurants and boarded-up buildings.
Except for Sears, Roebuck & Co., no major retailer operates an outlet in that market, which is one of the most heavily populated areas of the city. Only four supermarkets serve the area, and even those aren't easily accessible to large segments of the population.
A University of the District of Columbia study of citywide retail food services last year showed there were only two supermarkets in Anacostia's Ward 8.
Spokesmen for Giant Food Inc. and Safeway Stores--the dominant chains in metropolitan Washington--say their companies are willing to expand in Southeast Washington, but they cite land availability as a major barrier.
Recognizing that as a problem, UDC's Institute for District Affairs recommended a year ago that the city government actively intervene in resolving land assembly and acquisition problems as a first step toward increasing the number of supermarkets in the city.
District planning and economic development officials agree with residents of Southeast Washington that the Camp Simms tract would be an ideal site for a supermarket as the anchor store for a community retail center. To their credit, D.C. officials have talked with Giant and Safeway about the possibility of building a supermarket at Camp Simms if it is sold to a private developer.
But unless the D.C. government aggressively seeks out developers and offers meaningful inducements, the opportunity to convert economic development theory into a community jobs and tax-producing base will have slipped away.
John McKoy, director of the District's Office of Planning says the city "wants to get the Camp Simms property for local economic development."
But the District isn't prepared to pay what the General Services Administration calls "fair market value." Having failed to negotiate a sale of the property to the District, GSA will put it up for public bid.
GSA won't say what the fair market value is, but an official of the agency described Camp Simms as "an extremely valuable piece of property sitting out there" in a "high unemployment area." One of the agency's primary objectives in disposing of land is "to provide jobs and put people back on the tax roles," he added.
District officials obviously share that goal. But if it is to be achieved at Camp Simms, city officials must take a more aggressive approach in convincing the business community that areas beyond downtown are viable investment locations.
McKoy says the city may offer some kind of incentive to prospective buyers of the Camp Simms property if GSA has difficulty selling it.
But why wait? The city already has authority to offer incentives to spur economic development, so why not go out and offer them to prospective buyers of Camp Simms to ensure the kind of development that is desired?
Industrial revenue bonds, urban development action grants, and revolving loan funds are just some of the financial incentives that the District might offer to spur development of areas such as Camp Simms. By lowering the risk for developers, the city might persuade enough of them to bid on the property.
A recent consultant's study recommended financial incentives as ways of promoting further development downtown. At least one of those incentives should be used, however, for "selected non-downtown commercial and industrial purposes reflecting the city's economic development objectives," the report recommended.