THEY CAME in heels, jeans, shorts, ties, curlers and go-to-meeting hats, to sit in folding chairs or lean on cars in the parking lot of the shopping center at Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE. They came to mind their own business -- which is exactly what the new East River Park Shopping Center is: a neighborhood success story unlike any other in the District. It is a retail complex owned and managed by a community-based organization, and its grand opening is good news. In a part of the city where "firsts" don't happen all that often -- and where residents have come to learn about self-help out of necessity -- this shopping center represents a proud victory of community spirit and resourcefulness.
When residents put their heads together two years ago and announced this project, nobody really knew whether it would fly. There was a rundown shopping center there, but most of the neighborhood's retail business had been lost to suburban centers, along with tax dollars and jobs that could have been the city's to reap. Residents joined with representatives of interested businesses to form the nonprofit Marshall Heights Community Development Organization. They put together about $3.2 million to buy the old shopping center. They talked business, not government grants.
The purchase was financed with loans from the D.C. National Bank, the D.C. government, the D.C. Bankers Association and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national nonprofit group working to attract private financial and technical resources to rejuvenate deteriorating areas and facilities. Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Marshall Heights organization, which became a limited partner and income-sharer, saw to it that the various involved parties kept the books as well as the faith. Last Saturday, his organization made its first payment back to the city: a check for $2,768.25.
So the partnership is working. Residents have good reason to shop there, quite aside from the variety of stores that have become their committed neighbors. Fifteen establishments are in the center, including a department store, furniture store, drug store, auto supply company, grocery store and deli. Others are on the way, and the Marshall Heights organization will be exploring ways to increase its share in the partnership. Already, though, as Mr. Smith notes, East River Park should be an incentive for other neighborhood organizations "to take the economic fate of their neighborhoods in their own hands, and not wait for government action."