Lloyd Smith, a retired city planner, sits down in a small storefront office in far Northeast every month and writes checks totaling $22,700 to pay the mortgage on a multimillion-dollar shopping center.
Smith heads the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, a small nonprofit group that two years ago became the owner and landlord of a rundown nine-acre, 14-store shopping center on the southeast corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE.
Last month the new owners completed an extensive face lifting, which included a new parking lot, sheathing the shopping center in an aluminum facade and new landscaping.
"We spent about $1 million on exterior and interior repairs to the shopping center," Smith said.
While the neighborhood group had a lot to learn about managing a shopping mall, merchants and customers at East River Park Shopping Center are pleased with the new owners.
"We were thrilled when they[the Marshall Heights group] were able to take over management of the shopping center," said Richard Blechman, president of RNN Sales Inc., which owns McBride's, the mall's largest store and a 20-year tenant of the shopping center.
The mall's former owners "were removed mentally and physically from the center," Blechman said. He said he is excited about plans to form the shopping center's first merchants association this fall.
Sam Milligan, manager of the Standard Drug Store, which opened in June, said his business has increased 25 percent in three months. The new managers are "always on the ball . . . . They're constantly out here seeing if there's anything they can do," Milligan said. "They're very easy to work with."
Customers such as Gladys Gravatt, of 401 Chaplin St. SE, who has shopped at the mall for 20 years, also like the changes. "I like the improvement of McBride's. I'm pleased they have a new Standard [Drug Store], and I like the IGA [grocery store] . . . . I shop here because it takes me less than five minutes to get here."
Charles Turpin, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1935, remembers when there was a vacant lot where the mall now stands. "This is a pretty shopping center now; they've really fixed it up nice," he said. "It looks like all the other shopping centers now, and I'm very happy with it."
Barbara Norris, of 4525 Eads Place NE, said she's been shopping at the mall for eight years because it's convenient. "I like the stores, especially since they've fixed them up . . . . They did a real nice job."
And 16-year-old George Murray, of 3511 East Capitol St. SE, said the mall renovation "looks more dignified."
Members of Marshall Heights Community Development Organization are also pleased with the shopping mall's progress.
The group largely responsible for turning the once-foundering mall into a successful business center is the 53-member board of directors of the Marshall Heights organization. That group, which includes homemakers, retirees, ministers, a police officer and representatives from Ward 7 public housing projects and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, oversees an annual operating budget of $250,000 and a staff of six persons.
"We've made over $100,000 net in the last year," said Smith, adding that he is negotiating with other stores to expand the mall.
"We've had our ups and downs . . . but my board members have become very knowledgeable and sort of comfortable with the whole operation," Smith said. " . . . It's been a very good learning experience."
City officials, who helped secure financing for the innovative project, say they are happy with the refurbished shopping area.
"We are extremely pleased with their management," said Kwasi Holman, executive director of the city's office of business and economic development. Holman said the group's success has encouraged his office to support other nonprofit organizations to seek financing for similar business ventures.
The Marshall Heights group was able to become the city's first community group to buy a shopping center after receiving three loans: $250,000 from the Local Initiative Support Corp., a private group that encourages economic development by community groups; $885,000 from D.C. National Bank, due in three years, and $815,000, due in 18 years, as a second trust from the former owner of the shopping center, the estate of Louis Burman.
Mayor Marion Barry said in 1983, after the group purchased the center, that the renovation project "will serve as a centerpiece for my revitalization program for the area east of the Anacostia River."
City officials had hoped that the infusion of money into the shopping center would entice District residents to shop there instead of going to nearby suburban Maryland.
Ward 7 residents spend as much as 80 percent of their shopping dollars outside the ward, particularly in Maryland, according to city officials and Smith.