It was almost four years ago, but James Adkins still thinks about the time the bulldozer came to clear the strip of dilapidated row houses occupying the space designated for Shaw's new Giant supermarket. The century-old O Street Market, long the only major food shop in the area, had been shut since the 1968 riots. Adkins wanted to bring the market back to life alongside a spanking new Giant superstore; and as his dream approached reality, the prospective stores became the hope of the neighborhood: much anticipated, highly praised.
But as the bulldozer moved in to raze the houses, a clinging, screaming obstacle named Martha C. Brown blocked its path. Brown, 60 years old and the sole remaining homeowner, decided she wasn't going anywhere and pleaded for neighborhood support against the builder who, she said, wanted to kick a defenseless old lady out of her home.
"I felt like a fool," recalled Adkins. "Here I am thinking, 'Hey, blacks are making progress,' and here these people are saying, 'Here's a black guy throwing people out in the street.'"
That's the way things have been at the O Street Market, a triumph of local ingenuity and preseverance where community expectations and the realities of business have sometimes failed to coincide.
Reopened 15 months ago on the tract between 7th and 9th streets and O and P streets NW by neophyte developer James C. Adkins, and hailed as a spur to Shaw redevelopment, the $3.5 million O Street Market was viewed privately by some financial experts as just another heavily subsidized black business, leveraged to the hilt but destined to fail.
In the first year of operation, those doomsday predictions have not materialized and most of the project's backers are highly pleased.
Adkins, 49, has made his start as a developer. The Market has made it possible for several vendors to own their own businesses for the first time. But it is also true that many of the original and publicly-lauded aspects of the O Street venture -- including a community partnership in the ownership of the Giant store -- never happened.
Taken together, the modern 34,000-square foot Giant supermarket standing astride Martha Brown's old living room and the red brick barn of the historic market have answered some of the doubters who felt the Shaw area could never again be economically viable. Taken separately, the picture looks somewhat different.
The Shaw Giant, one of the chain's 127 metropolitan area stores but one of only eight in the District, has thrived beyond all expectations. But the O Street Market, owned by Adkins and operated by a dozen vendors, has only just kept pace with its expenses, Adkins said, despite prices that vendors say are comparable to and often lower than those of the neighboring Giant.
Commissioner B. James Carter of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2C, whose jurisdiction includes the Market, noted, " It just isn't what I expected. I thought it would be the old country markets type thing.
"There haven't been any negative comments toward the market as (far as) I can see," Carter added. "On the other hand, I don't think the community uses it as much."
That local ambivalence toward O Street translates into a robust business for the Giant, though Giant officials are reluctant to be specific.
"It's doing really well," said Barry Scher, a Giant spokesman. David B. Sykes, Giant's senior vice president for finance, would say only that "We've created a profitable store and that's good. All pluses."
Although the Giant will not reveal sales figures for individual stores, a source close to the Giant operation said that the sales for the Shaw store in 1980 were more than double the amount projected. Moreover, the source said, sales for the Shaw Giant totaled more than $18 million, about double the average of Giant stores in fiscal 1980.
By contrast, sales at the Market totaled only about $4 million last year among the 12 vendors, according to Adkins. The market does have less space: about 11,000 square feet compared to Giant's 34,000 square feet.
Adkins, who owns the land, the O Street and Giant buildings and the O Street equipment, said he only broke even on the Market operation last year. He explained that his taxes and operating costs, particularly utilities, were higher than expected.
But Adkins is still bullish on his operation, and never misses an opportunity to say so. "We're in absolutely good shape; we're a first-class operation. Our products are nothing but fresh," he says, drawing out the last word with a flourish, "nothing but fr-e-sh."
To hear Adkins tell it, when he first got the idea of opening the Market he went down to a bank still wearing his fish cleaning coat, and asked for $100,000 to fix things up.
"I thought I could spruce it up, clean it up, paint it up and have the 2 market of the past," said Adkins, shaking his head at his earlier naivete.
Prior to his O Street Market venture, Adkins had managed only small fish markets and produce stands. They included the Quality Produce Market at 4817 Georgia Ave. NW (he sold it in 1972), a produce stand at 1309 5th St. NE (1972-1977), Century C-Food (1974-1978), a small market and restaurant at 1353 Randolph St. NW, and, briefly, a seafood market on Branch Avenue in suburban Maryland.
Now, seven years and $3.5 million later, Adkins knows a lot more about putting up a project, about who's building what in town, and what it's going to cost.
Adkins, fifth in a family of eight from Macon, Ga., said he served in the U.S. Navy for four years and attended Harvard College but did not graduate. According to the Rev. Henry C. Gregory III, pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church, Adkins has become an avid supporter of community projects though he often makes his contributions anonymously. Gregory said that Adkins has made "substantial" contributions to the Shiloh Family Life Center, even though Adkins does not belong to the church.
He's ecstatic about the Market, he really is," said Mary Ivey, a city mental health administrator. She and her husband, Monteria, a retired city housing official, have known Adkins and his wife Priscilla for 10 years.
"I think the money (the Adkins) could generate from it doesn't equate with the excitement they get from having it there. It's like an extension of themselves into the community."
Adkins has nothing but words of praise for the O Street Market vendors, whom he affectionately calls "my entrepreneurs." He recites his list of tenants, whom he charges $500 to $1,200 per week for their stalls and equipment, with the pride of a patriarch describing his children's achievements:
"I have the Gray brothers, Herbert and Paul, for my meats. Their father was in the old market, it's home to them. My egg man, Dwight Martin of Shippendale, Pa., brings in some of the finest eggs on the east coast. I know they're fresh, I've been to the farm. And I get my produce from Ron Salins, he's one of the big names. . . ," Adkins says rapturously. "That's why we're successful. We're just like one big family."
The family analogy is appropriate, since Adkins handpicked each of his vendors. He is known to make regular sweeps around the Market, commenting on this display of fish or that pile of fruit.
He knew almost all the vendors personally, sometimes socially, before they became his tenants -- many of them from his days as a owner of a produce market and fish store. Three of the vendors, Lucille and Fred Preston, owners of the perpetually busy fish market; Julius Edmonson, owner of the candy and ice cream concession; and Melvin and Eric Pickett, owners of the bakery with other Pickett family members, are in business for themselves for the first time.
All of them said they were delighted with their new ventures, although only the Prestons, whom Adkins instructed in business practices, reported a profit on last year's work.
It is the other, more experienced vendors who complain of mediocre sales and continuous losses, especially when allowed to talk on a "not for quotation" basis. One vendor, who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing his relations with Adkins, said, "I can tell you I'm losing money steadily. The market is a good site but it's not being advertised properly. And," the vendor added, "there's a lot of theft . . . The place is not making any money."
Marie Gray, a butcher who operates a meat concession with her husband Paul, said her husband had a sentimental attachment to the Market, where he and his father operated a stand years ago -- in the days when meats were stored in deep floor pits instead of refrigerators, when water sloshed over the floors, creating a frightful smell and a running battle with city sanitation officials.
But Gray harbors no romance about the present market.
"Business is just fair," she said, adding that she didn't like the area when she moved there. "We need more security. One young man robbed a lady a couple of weeks ago, and that's bad, people won't want to come in."
Although some of Adkins' vendors say they are suffering, his lenders are happy. Unlike some developers who financed local projects with a combination of public and private funds. Adkins has done the one thing closest to the hearts of financiers -- he pays them on time, and regularly.
"It's one of the Economic Development Administration's real successes in the city, especially compared to some of their real (blunders) like Haramabee House," said Bob Pickeral, an officer of Riggs Bank, which provided the construction loan.
Adkins was the sole bidder on the O Street Market land, which he bought from the District's Redevelopment Land Agency in 1974. Adkins bought the property, which the city helped clear, for $200,000.
In 1977, adkins borrowed $1.6 million each from the U.S. Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration and Prudential Insurance Company for the permanent mortgage. With about $485,000 of his own money and a $3.2 million construction loan from Riggs Bank, Adkins renovated the Market and, having persuaded Giant to move there, built the supermarket building, the pedestrian mall and the parking lot. Giant has an exclusive contract to operate the store, but Adkins leases the building to them for $200,000 yearly plus a percentage of sales. Adkins leases the stalls and all the equipment to the vendors.
"It's doing pretty well," said George Bechert, an account officer for Prudential. "It's in an area where there's a good need for it."
A few months ago, Adkins was forced to renegotiate his loan with the EDA and will take 25 years to repay it, instead of the original 12. But the EDA is not complaining.
The project's in good shape, there are no problems with it," said Jim Register, an EDA spokesman.
Adkins and his lenders also said that the Market provides about 70 full- and part-time jobs for the area, while Giant offers about 115 full- and part-time jobs.
Other aspects of the venture have not turned out so well. Three vendors left in the first year. One of them, Elmer Cooper, is being sued by Adkins to recover $184,000 in allegedly unpaid rent. Laurel Food Service, one of the vendors lured from White Flint to give O Street a specialty market chic, found no market for their products, said Askins. "Croissants didn't sell. Neither did goat cheese," he added.
As one of the customers interviewed said, the Market may suffer from a reputation as a mom-and-pop operation. Despite Adkins' early attempt to impart a trendy aura, the market has become a home for smaller merchants rather than more exotic competitors for the Giant. "The only time I come in here is for fast food, like the fish," said Sterling Cary, a Howard University student who lives at 7th and R streest NW. "I just thought the prices would be higher. You see a small establishment like this and a big establishment like that and you just assume the Giant is cheaper."
The original ownership concept for the Giant food store called for two community groups to become partners in the Giant operation and to share in the profits. D.C. Development Corporation (DCDC), the city's non-profit housing rehabilitiation agency, was to own 56.7 per cent of the operation, and the Greater Shaw Community Development Corporation, an arm of the Shaw Project Area Committee, was to own 10 per cent in return for paying the same percentages of the $1.5 million cost of stocking the new store. The remaining percentage would belong to Giant, which had exclusive rights to operate the store.
In fact, according to David Sykes, Giant senior vice president, neither group ever paid for its full share of the operation. Giant advanced all the cash for the Shaw group, said Sykes, and the DCDC owes "in excess of $500,000." DCDC officials could not be reached for comment.
Sykes said Giant has not yet decided how to treat the debts. He added that the Shaw group would probably still receive its share of the profits, but not DCDC. "They aren't going to get any cash until such time as they do pay. Shaw-Pac will probably be treated differently (because) it's a group of citizens. But the DCDC is a government agency and you expect the government to have the money," Sykes said.
Adkins says his work is far from finished. In a few months, he expects to begin construction of a D.C. National Bank branch proposed for the corner of 7th and P streets NW, part of the original plan for the O Street complex. Adkins also plans to ring his building with an $80,000 canopy to make room for 25 low-rent farmers' stalls. "I want to do something for the vendors who were displaced" by the renovation of the O Street Market, he said. Afterwards, Adkins said, he'll go on to new ventures. And why not?" I did it," he said of the Market, "When nobody believed it could be done -- except me.
"All you hear about is black business failure after failure. I said, 'It's not going to happen to me.'"