D.C. City Council member H.R. Crawford describes Washington as a "city of two extremes: a city for the very rich and a city for the very poor."
The very poor are seldom, if ever, seen by the very rich. For many Washingtonians, the very poor sections of the city are little more than places on a map.
In reality, they are part of the geographic core of a region that business and political leaders tout as the fifth-largest retail sales market, the hottest commercial construction market and one with perhaps the highest concentration of service-industry jobs in the United States. The potential for economic growth and entrepreneurial vitality is "truly extraordinary," a prominent local business leader recently declared.
Very little of that is applicable to the very poor sections of Washington, however. Investors, at least, haven't been convinced of that for a long time. To be sure, investors haven't made the very poor city a destination for office workers, shoppers and tourists. But neither is the very poor city the location of vital services for residents. It is almost devoid of food stores, drug stores, dry cleaning establishments and apparel stores, and it offers few employment opportunities. The very poor city is the underbelly of the District's economy.
Council members Crawford and Wilhelmina Rolark, among others, who represent much of the very poor city, have tried for years to convince investors that the potential there is excellent for economic growth. Crawford and Rolark succeeded this week in persuading some bankers, at least, that there is money to be made in the very poor city.
Daniel J. Callahan III, the chairman and chief executive officer of American Security Bank, concluded after a rare visit to wards represented by Crawford and Rolark that, indeed, investment potential is there. What's more, Callahan has agreed to commit financing for viable projects in those wards.
By daring to tread where developers and other investors feared to venture, Callahan may have paved a new route to what has been the economic development backwater of the District. Callahan's decision to see for himself rather than follow the usual procedure of dispatching a loan officer to the hinterlands will be read several ways. But Crawford, for one, views it as a positive first step. "It's too bad that some others [bank executives] didn't do the same thing," Crawford observed.
Callahan's unusual tour was prompted, of course, by events that preceded the city council's vote Tuesday night to override Mayor Marion Barry's veto of the District's interstate banking bill. District banks had been accused in the sometimes acerbic debate surrounding the bill of failing to make loans in certain sections of the city. Local banks in effect, had been challenged to match a promise by New York's Citicorp to make more loans to businesses and residents here.
The issue thus turned to more of a question of who is responsible for economic development in the District than a debate on interstate banking.
But in the aftermath of Tuesday's vote by the council, there is general agreement that debate of the complex interstate banking issue is likely to have a positive effect on economic development in the District.
It was, according to a senior vice president at a local bank, "a valuable educational experience. We all learned from it."
"I think that what's happened is all for the better and I hope it will continue," Crawford said. "I do believe that the [local] banks are committed."
With the council having voted for a regional interstate banking bill favored by local banks, officials of those institutions are under greater pressure now than before to live up to commitments to make more loans in the city. There can hardly be business as usual even if big out-of-state banks are denied early entry into the District. Local bankers will be expected to put their money where their mouths were in the past several weeks.
It's worth keeping in mind, however, that banks basically make loans, not investments. They may take equity positions temporarily for collateral purposes but, generally, other subsidiaries of bank holding companies (the parent corporations of banks) make investments in commercial or residential complexes. Also, it takes more than a bank's promises to make loans. A promise to make a loan is only as good as the ability of the prospective borrower to repay it.
Until entrepreneurs, chain store operators, and residential and commercial property developers present viable proposals to bank loan officers, neither promises from local banks nor those from big New York banks will change much in depressed areas of the city.
The debate over interstate banking has had a serendipitous effect on the way local banks view the city. Now, it's up to D.C. officials to persuade investors to follow Callahan's route to the other Washington.