It has taken more than two years, but D.C. Mayor Marion Barry finally has responded to a call for help from small-business owners who fear they will be driven out of downtown Washington by high-density development.
In remarks obviously intended to have their greatest impact on the city's small-business community, the mayor announced to guests attending the D.C. Chamber of Commerce's annual awards banquet last Saturday that he soon will appoint a blue-ribbon committee to study the problems encountered by small firms in downtown Washington. A blue-ribbon committee is no guarantee for solving those problems, but many of those attending the chamber banquet found the mayor's promise encouraging, nevertheless.
Others, including some members of the D.C. City Council, are less sanguine about the appointment of yet another committee to find solutions to the city's economic development problems. "The best way to handle a problem when you don't want to deal with it is to appoint a committee to deal with it," scoffed Councilman John Wilson.
"The mayor had his opportunity to do that in the comprehensive plan. A blue-ribbon panel won't help [small businesses]. The comprehensive plan should have," Wilson suggested.
Indeed, it should have. One of the lofty objectives in that controversial document, which would have established the framework for a "living downtown," cited the importance of protecting small and minority businesses. Protecting small and minority businesses and increasing opportunities for them, in fact, are key parts of downtown economic development, city planners stated three years ago. The downtown economic base should be expanded and diversified, they said.
But writers of the plan also warned that "some guidance and incentives are needed to keep office development from crowding out other uses."
Two years later, in 1985, a committee of D.C. Downtown Partnership, the public-private-sector body established to guide downtown development, made the following observation: "The existing small and minority business community faces a series of obstacles. Without melodrama, it can plainly be stated that, without assistance, the existing business base is threatened."
That is precisely the point that small-business operators in the old downtown commercial core east of 15th Street NW have been making ever since they first petitioned the mayor and the council for help more than two years ago.
The guidance and incentives to keep office development from crowding out other uses are not in place, and dislocation of small businesses has become an even greater problem since the comprehensive plan was written.
The Barry administration, through the D.C. Office of Business and Economic Development, and the Downtown Partnership have established the retention of small business downtown as a priority. OBED Director Kwasi Holman says his office has developed several proposals as possible remedies to the problems of small businesses threatened with displacement.
Why, then, is it necessary to appoint another blue-ribbon committee to study the problem? "I think the thrust of [the mayor's] program is to look at some other innovative solutions," Holman suggested. "There are some parties outside the [Downtown] Partnership that the mayor would like to include."
The Downtown Partnership, composed of representatives from the private sector and the D.C. government, is supposed to be a catalyst for orderly development in the old downtown area. The idea for the partnership originated with the Mayor's Downtown Committee. That, too, was a blue-ribbon panel that was supposed to have established a framework for economic development downtown, including proposals for retention of small businesses.
While the District, the Downtown Partnership and the various committees sort out proposals, innovative solutions and recommendations, small businesses sitting in the path of the wrecking ball might consider a couple of suggestions from Councilman Wilson.
"The small businesses should come together in a group and get an industrial revenue bond and build their own [commercial] development," Wilson said. "They would own the site that the building is on and they would get a tax break."
Wilson envisions an urban mall for small businesses that can't afford to pay the high costs of leasing space in new buildings. But he maintains that, rather than being just tenants, they can be development partners as well.
"Or, they could do a joint venture with a [major] developer," Wilson suggested. "I don't think people have used very much imagination in the process."
Perhaps the mayor's new blue-ribbon committee will.