The scene is a Saturday morning in a low-income D.C. neighborhood. A constant stream of customers passes through the doors of a nationally franchised fast-food restaurant, lining up to buy fried chicken, medium fries and Cokes. The order-taker is a teen- ager, a neighborhood high school student with a part-time job; the manager is neither seen nor is known by the people in line. The transactions are repeated in most Washington neighborhoods every day of the week at almost every hour of the day. The company could just as easily be a convenience store as a fast-food outlet.
With increasing frequency, people are asking questions about these national franchises: who manages and owns the local outlet? Does the manager's involvement in community affairs stop at the front door? Is he or is his home office committed to making a positive contribution to the neighborhood, beyond providing a product, a service and/or employment to area residents? In short, is the company a good neighbor?
The issue of corporate community involvement is not new. But in an age when government financing is decreasing drastically, the requirement is growing for active corporate involvement in community affairs. And while this requirement applies across the board to all businesses, it is especially important for franchised fast-food outlets and convenience stores to be "good neighbors," for the simple reason that those retailers have the most frequent and direct contact with people.
Some companies have made sincere and substantial efforts to be good corporate neighbors. Cities all over the country are benefiting from the efforts of civic-minded corporations. For example, an insurance company in Seattle raised enough money in a fund drive to put to work 225 teen-agers from needy families. Business contributions in Richmond will pay for a much-needed renovation of that city's downtown. Other corporations are taking a different tack--donating expertise, not money, by loaning their executives to cities to help straighten out budgets and purchasing operations.
Here in Washington, one corporation is contributing about $600,000 to bring performing artists to the area schools. Another has supported a word-processing training school that has graduated more than 200 low- income District students and, working with Friendship House and other agencies, has created 200 summer jobs with a $100,000 grant. Of the fast-food chains, McDonald's has been a leader in providing summer jobs for youth.
Unfortunately, many businesses have yet to demonstrate that they are good neighbors. Most franchise and chain businesses substantially limit their participation in community affairs to the daily exchange of money for their products--an outward flow of D.C. dollars to other localities. Those companies that hesitate to correct this trade imbalance because they have not yet felt any pressure to do so may be missing an opportunity to get ahead and stay ahead of their competitors. And they may be courting resistance from local government officials and regulators, who are becoming increasingly resentful about this lack of participation.
I have not encountered a company that is unequivocally unwilling to assume a larger local role; I have, however, met some that either are not sufficiently committed or are simply unaware of the many avenues available for involvement.
For starters, business could lend support to existing employment training and community service programs, such as those operated by the Urban League, the Opportunities Industrialization Center and the NAACP. All of these groups sponsor recognized, effective programs, and all enjoy tax-exempt status. Churches, fraternal groups, educational institutions and civic associations sponsor many other programs. Contributions of ideas, training, equipment and expertise are just as valuable as outright cash gifts or the direct creation of jobs. The D.C. Council is now considering the Neighborhood Assistance Act, which, if passed, would provide tangible tax incentives for companies to contribute to community organizations and projects.
Franchises and managers should be required to take measurably active local roles. Managers should be encouraged to become active in advisory neighborhood commissions, civic groups and selected church activities. They could sponsor neighborhood youth programs such as scouting, Little League and boys' and girls' clubs. Or they could seek directorships of community service organizations.
As organizations become more sensitive about companies that are not contributing their fair share to the community at large, they voice their frustration to the D.C. Council, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board and other city agencies that are listening and responding.
Government officials have many ways of regulating business and development. For example, the council recently passed amendments to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act that will significantly restrict the ability of chain and franchise stores to sell beer and wine. A proposed Fair Franchising Act would carve out a governmental presence in the relationship between franchises and their sponsoring companies.
The Historic Preservation Act also ensures other government reviews of many development decisions. The council's concern for maintaining the availability of auto repair facilities has resulted in a moratorium on the conversion of full service gasoline stations to self service--despite the pointed opposition of all major oil companies. The Board of Zoning Adjustment has been particularly careful to accord "great weight" to local opinions regarding zoning applications.
Government action could assume other forms. The regulation of hiring practices, hours of operation and minimum wages are within the power of the council. Zoning decisions, such as the location, size and conduct of businesses, the allowable uses of the land, parking requirements, seating capacities of restaurants and the operation of drive- through windows are within the purview of zoning authorities.
Community groups have a responsibility, too. They should enthusiastically support and patronize those companies that are helping to make Washington a better place to live. And they should provide a trained, educated supply of prospective employees.
The investment that a business makes in a local area and the support it wins as a result may be just enough to ensure its survival in the 1980s. Those companies that continue to take without giving may find that the days when customers blindly rush into their stores are numbered. A business that helps its neighborhood also helps itself.