Barely six months into his first term, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams has compiled quite a record of photo opportunities documenting his endorsement of a number of proposals described as important initiatives in economic development.
Williams led the cheers for a proposal to build a major league baseball stadium downtown, helped demolish a group of vacant buildings to demonstrate the city's support for plans to redevelop the New York Avenue corridor, and pledged to help fund construction of a Metro station in that part of the city.
He even found time to schmooze with retailers and developers at this year's meeting of the International Council of Shopping Center Developers in Las Vegas, telling industry officials the District is open for business.
No doubt the mayor would like to see an increase in the number of general merchandise and specialty retail stores in the District. But the one retailer that has actively sought to do more business in the District apparently has been unsuccessful in its attempts to meet with Williams and his staff.
"We've been trying for several months now to meet with the mayor to discuss our interest in building more stores in the District," said Gregory TenEyck, director of public affairs at Safeway Inc.'s eastern division headquarters in Lanham.
TenEyck says he's written "a number of letters to [Williams's] appointments secretary" saying Mike Bessire, president of Safeway's eastern division, would like to meet with the mayor. TenEyck has yet to receive reply.
A spokesman for Williams acknowledged there was a discussion of the Safeway letters but could not explain why there hasn't been a reply by now. The spokesman added that the mayor's scheduling will try to set up a meeting this month with Safeway officials.
How ironic. Safeway wants to open more stores in the District and can't get an audience to talk about potential sites or a public-private partnership that might produce more stores.
"I think city officials are aware of our interest in opening more stores," said TenEyck. "We're currently looking at a number of sites. We constantly have a high interest in looking at sites. Obviously the challenge is finding the right locations."
Times certainly have changed. D.C. officials and civic leaders have tried for nearly three decades to persuade supermarket industry executives to open more stores in the District. Only Safeway has maintained more than a token presence in the city during all that time.
Thirty years ago, there were more than 90 chain grocery stores in the District.Today there are fewer than two dozen. Giant Food, the leading supermarket chain in the area, operates just four stores in the District, compared with 16 for No. 2 Safeway.
Although it has closed some smaller, unprofitable stores in recent years, Safeway has built or expanded 11 stores in the District since 1980. At the same time, the company was forced to close two D.C. stores after landlords declined to renew the leases.
Four years ago, the authors of a national study of nearly 6,000 supermarkets concluded there was a "grocery gap" in the District and 20 other cities.
As one of the authors explained, in many of those cities there are two food distribution systems: one for people who have access to suburban supermarkets and one for those who don't.
One of the more surprising aspects of their study, researchers noted then, was that the gap between rich and poor neighborhoods wasn't as great in the District as it was in many other cities.
That's an interesting statistic, but the comparison is less than reassuring to the thousands of D.C. residents -- rich and poor alike -- who don't have a grocery store within a reasonable distance of their homes.
Some activists and civic leaders complain that there aren't enough supermarkets east of Rock Creek Park, especially in low-income communities. However, a map showing the locations of the 16 Safeway stores disproves that claim. Only six of those stores are west of Rock Creek Park.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of the District of Columbia in the 1970s found that the city could support 20 new supermarkets by 1984. But with the sharp decline in the city's population since then, it's not clear how many stores the city could support today.
Not even Safeway officials are certain how many new stores are needed in the District. What does seem clear is that Safeway officials are convinced that there continues to be a demand for additional stores. An apparent increase in demand for housing near downtown and in other areas of the city certainly tends to support that position.
Clearly Safeway has demonstrated not only that supermarkets in the District can be profitable but that it's committed to maintaining a strong presence in the nation's capital.
More to the point, Safeway's development of a 170,000-square-foot retail center in Southeast Washington, with a state-of-the-art supermarket as anchor, is a model of commitment that shouldn't be so easily forgotten by D.C. officials. They should, in fact, encourage Safeway to replicate the center, Good Hope Place, in other areas of the city.