Three D.C. City Council members have criticized the city's economic development plans for ignoring far Northeast and Southeast and favoring downtown development.
"You're doing absolutely nothing but a lot of talk," council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) angrily told Deputy Mayor Curtis McClinton Jr. the other day.
When McClinton later countered the attack, he charged Crawford with carrying out a vendetta.
Whatever the reality behind either man's claim, one truth is certain: Economic development in Washington has primarily benefited the downtown section of the city.
The scattered development I saw on a tour of neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River the other day was a mere drop in the bucket compared with the tremendous need in that section.
Still, the argument was but a replay of an old refrain; similar charges were hurled against Mayor Marion Barry when he ran for a second term two years ago.
So the question that remains is, what should the city do?
Let's start with the premise that the ultimate goal is to attract private industry to develop areas in the far Southeast and Northeast sections, as has been the case in downtown Washington. The city has not developed the downtown; nearly all of that development has been driven by private investment.
Moreover, the city thus far has been unable to spur development even where it has made development tools available -- for example, along the H Street NE corridor. So, bold and innovative ideas clearly are needed.
Realistically, developers consider Connecticut Avenue a less risky and less difficult site for development than far Northeast or Southeast. They reason that developing Connecticut Avenue is market enhancement; developing far Southeast and Northeast means virtual creation of a market.
Private investors are conservative and will invest where they can be promised the surest return and least risk.
Government's role, then, becomes to reduce the investors' risk and to show them there is a market to be served where they can make a profit on their investment.
Meanwhile, if you take the argument of the council members to one extreme, they are advocating that resources should be diverted from downtown to the wards. But we live in an age of conservatism and limited resources.
All of which seems to give some credence to an option and challenge I'd like to throw out for the mayor and the council to consider:
Instead of trying to continue to spend the limited resources all over the city, why not develop a series of minieconomic development plans for the previously neglected wards and focus resources on one ward at a time for a period of two years, then on other needy wards in successive two-year periods?
These focused miniplans would provide the opportunity to concentrate attention and larger outlays for planning, loans and grants for housing and small businesses, public facilities and neighborhood improvement.
All this could create an environment in which businesses could succeed, and in which some neighborhood people would be employed.
Spot development could occur even on specific blocks, perhaps with the city setting up a local version of the national urban development action grants that offer attractive low-interest loans.
Of course, the needs of each ward not singled out for special attention would have to be met to the point where their problems don't escalate. But this option would give each community an opportunity to reach a certain threshold at which it would be attractive for private investment to enter on its own, or with reasonable levels of risk and public subsidy.
Politically, all this would require an unprecedented degree of cooperation and daring for both the executive and the legislative branches; but these government institutions are being challenged by the people to use their enormous power to help change the quality of lives.
The time has come to put forth some new and creative solutions so the people in these sections can see concrete change.
We can't expect those kids I saw on the street in Northeast to deal with this. We can expect the executive and the legislative branches to provide them with some horizons they can see and achieve.