The National Capital Revitalization Corp., the District's publicly chartered economic development firm, is looking for a new chief executive for the third time in its four-year existence.
The choice made by the firm's board of directors, and the timing of that choice, will be the latest test of the corporation's often contentious relationship with D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and senior officials in his administration.
Aides to Williams (D) said a chief executive should not be chosen until fall, after the mayor fills two board vacancies -- one open for a year, another since July. But NCRC board Chairman W. Ronald Evans said in an interview that he might not wait.
And while Williams officials said it is important that the NCRC and its chief executive share the mayor's goals and priorities for bringing new projects and jobs to the city's underserved neighborhoods, Evans said those paths at times may diverge.
"The economic development agenda for the city may not be the same as mine," said Evans, who was appointed to the board by President Bush and was elected chair last month. "But, we're working in the same direction."
The top spot at the NCRC came open last week, when Theodore N. Carter resigned after 20 months on the job. Many major projects moved forward during his tenure, including new apartments and retail projects in Columbia Heights and the redevelopment of shopping complexes on the Southwest waterfront and in the Skyland neighborhood of Southeast.
But Williams aides and Evans said those deals required too much hands-on involvement from board members and city agencies.
Carter, in turn, said he was caught in the storms that often brewed between the city government and the NCRC board. The two entities have clashed repeatedly in the last year -- over who should get surplus revenue generated by a tax on the MCI center; over how the city and corporation should split the cost of redeveloping Skyland; and over how much the NCRC should be compensated for land it was giving up in Southwest Washington to spur the redevelopment of the Waterside Mall and the Anacostia riverfront.
"That was a significant drag on us," said Carter, who before joining the corporation had managed the mayor's reelection campaign, and before that had worked for D.C. chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi. "That is a very challenging and complicated environment through which to execute deals."
The acrimony -- several insiders said deputy mayor for economic development Eric Price and former NCRC board chair Karen Hardwick barely spoke to one another -- slowed some projects, and tarnished the District's otherwise strong economic development reputation.
The Williams administration publicly threatened to sue the NCRC last summer over the MCI Center money; during the fight over who should control the Southwest Waterfront, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups lined up to blast Price's office and side with the NCRC.
D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who worked with Carter on plans to redevelop blighted blocks of Georgia Avenue, said that in trying to please both the board and the mayor's office, Carter seemed to satisfy neither.
"Ted Carter all at once was seen as being too close to the mayor and not loyal to the mayor," Fenty said. "He really seemed to be stuck in no man's land there."
Officials inside and outside the NCRC said some of the conflict with the city is built into the development firm's structure, and is understood most easily by recalling why the corporation was created in the first place. The idea was born when the District was run by a federally appointed control board,before Williams was elected. The District government did not have an effective office of economic development. Critics said that many new projects involved cronies of then-mayor Marion Barry, and some languished unbuilt for years.
"The intention was to create this nimble corporation that could assist in the revitalization of underserved neighborhoods," said Charlene Drew Jarvis, a lead architect of the NCRC.
Jarvis noted that Williams, then the city's chief financial officer, supported the idea of an independent, corporate-style entity to lead neighborhood development. She and others said the city needs the NCRC to move projects forward, unencumbered by the politics and bureaucracy that are inherent in government agencies. Some of its board members are chosen by the president, and others are named by the mayor.
But after Williams took office in 1999, he hired Price and built a strong planning and economic development team. When the NCRC's board differed with the city on which projects to do first, or how a project should be financed or developed, tension began to grow.
"This is a rock and a hard place," Jarvis said. "Who's going to be in the pull and the tug between the chairman and the administration? The CEO."
The NCRC inherited the real estate portfolio of the now-defunct Redevelopment Land Agency -- a portfolio assessed at $300 million in 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available. The NCRC has launched some two dozen projects, which are expected to generate $1 billion in investments in the next five years.
The firm's first chief executive, Elinor Bacon, left after 15 months to mixed reviews. She was praised for launching the corporation's first projects, but criticized for alienating her board members and some of her staff.
Price, who like Gandhi holds an ex-officio seat on the NCRC board, repeatedly declined requests to discuss the administration's relations with the NCRC. He said in a written statement that he supported the board's decision to accept Carter's resignation. "Going forward, we intend to work with the board on the further development of a strategic plan that maximizes their resources and is consistent with the economic development goals of the city," the statement said.
But some observers questioned whether the city intends to cooperate with the NCRC. Fenty said Price's office moved very slowly to seek proposals from developers for two vacant parcels on Georgia Avenue, in part because of a fight over how much the city should pay the NCRC to acquire the Southwest waterfront -- land that the city needed for its massive waterfront initiative.
"There is great pressure from the mayor's economic development team -- to not just work with them, but to do their bidding," Fenty said. "They've got to stop acting as if NCRC was just another arm of the mayor's office."
The next clash could be the selection of Carter's successor. NCRC Senior Vice President Anthony C. Freeman was named interim chief executive last week, and some board members reportedly support him for the permanent job. Some, including Council member David Catania (R-At Large), speculate that Price would like the job himself. But Price insists he has not thought about it, and those who work for him say the NCRC job would reduce his profile.
Williams and aides to Price said no new chief executive should be chosen until fall, after Williams nominates two new board members to the council, and the council holds confirmation hearings. But critics of the mayor say Williams should have filled those vacancies earlier if he wanted them to influence the process. Mayoral spokesman Tony Bullock said that there was no specific reason that the vacancies hadn't been filled, but that such delays are not uncommon in city government.
Freeman, who left the private sector in Dallas to come to the NCRC last October, said his new job requires "a tough balancing act between the private sector and the public policy initiatives."
"What we do is hard, and there's always a lot of spirited discussion," Freeman said. "Our goal is to balance all of those needs."