You need political or financial clout or a show of strength in numbers in this town if you want to get the attention of decision-makers. But that's something that retail merchants in Washington's old downtown core haven't fully appreciated yet.
More than two months ago, merchants collected signatures on a petition calling for angle parking on certain streets. They maintain that a new parking plan is needed to boost sagging sales by attracting more shoppers to the area.
Members of the merchants group are disappointed with the response--or lack thereof--to their petitions from city officials, including the mayor.
"We didn't get any response but we'll get some this time, though," promised Joseph Threatt, manager of the Esther Shop in the 1200 block of F Street NW.
Threatt's confidence is rooted in a plan by merchants to draw attention to their cause Thursday in an uninvited appearance at the District Building. The object of this confrontation strategy is to call attention to merchants' unhappiness over their lack of input in the District's comprehensive plan for downtown.
It's doubtful that that strategy alone will work in winning support for angle parking on certain streets in the retail core. It seems clear, however, that merchants in the area in question need to focus on a broader agenda if they are to generate more sales.
What's more, redevelopment with or without the comprehensive plan will force many of the smaller merchants out of business or into the suburbs. In fact, the handwriting is already on the wall for some.
"A lot of small businesses can't afford to pay the privilege rent," Threatt conceded in a sarcastic reference to the higher fees being asked for retail space in new buildings.
An unprecedented buildup of office and retail space downtown has moved District officials to predict a renaissance of the old shopping district. At the same time, officials of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Corp. expect that untold benefits will spill over from the revitalized avenue to the shopping district.
Merchants such as Threatt, however, have a surprisingly incongruous view of those grand plans for the revitalization of downtown. They argue that demolition of old structures and high rental rates in new buildings will combine to drive some retailers out of business or to the suburbs.
"We can see the failure of downtown redevelopment," Threatt said. "Downtown is going to die, and people are going to be out of work. Small businesses are being pushed out already. All you have to do is ride down G Street. They're destroying downtown."
Threatt really believes the process began several years ago when District officials redesigned F Street, constructing a pedestrian mall between 12th and 14th streets NW and closing a two-block section between 7th and 9th streets NW to traffic.
Of the mall, Threatt inquired: "Do you know what it attracts? Bums and drunks. If you work downtown, you can't sit on a bench and eat your lunch next to a man who smells like a distillery."
Given the plight of small merchants who face many of the threats described by Threatt, petitioning for angle parking appears to be an inadequate first step to solving their problems.
Threat disagrees. Change the parking lanes in the retail sector and shoppers will return downtown, he believes.
"We know city officials are trying to promote usage of the subway but that's not working," Threatt contended. "People just ride the subway to go to and from work. Besides, everybody doesn't want to ride Metro."
Granted, parking or a lack of ample and fairly inexpensive spaces for autos put downtown merchants at a distinct disadvantage in their competition with retailers at suburban malls. But angle parking alone won't save downtown merchants.
The better course, it seems, would be to organize and tackle their problems with some self-help projects. It was suggested in this column several weeks ago that retailers form a downtown merchants association. One of the first things that association should undertake is a rejuvenation of store fronts and interiors. New facades, new signs and more attractive displays are essential if shoppers are to be lured to the area.
Along with those physical changes, merchants can help themselves by marketing the retail core more effectively as a group. Members of a downtown merchants association might find it advantageous to share the costs of advertising circulars inserted in local newspapers. And they might induce shoppers to come downtown by picking up part of the parking fee at area garages.
In a nutshell, downtown merchants will have to organize, invest a little more in their businesses and market the area if they want to survive.