IT COULD have been just another ho-hummer of a news item about a neighborhood scraping up a grant or two to announce a "model renewal initiative" that would then fall on its financial face in a year or two. But that's not the story in the community of Marshall Heights in Northeast Washington. When the residents there decided four years ago to revive their struggling neighborhood, they got down to business -- and today, business is looking up. It's a genuine grass-roots success story. For all the inflated dubbing of projects as "models for the city" (or the nation or the world, depending on the source of money or the proximity of the event to the next election), what has happened at the East River Park Shopping Center at Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE is something other depressed neighborhoods should find uplifting.
It started when the neighbors took a look around and found slim economic pickings out their way: about all they had was a run-down shopping center from which retail businesses had been fleeing by the numbers for greener pastures in the suburbs. With the departure of each store went jobs, tax dollars and the looks of the place. But creative residents joined with representatives of what interested businesses still did exist and formed the nonprofit Marshall Heights Community Development Organization. They put together about $3.2 million to buy the shopping center, with loans from the D.C. government, the D.C. Bankers Association and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national nonprofit philanthropic group. The Marshall Heights organization became a limited partner and an income-sharer in what executive director Lloyd Smith stressed would not be a grant project but rather "a straight business deal."
Two years ago, at a grand reopening ceremony, the proud partners in this venture -- residents, retailers and backers -- rallied in the center's parking lot. Their organization made its first payment back to the city, in the form of a check for $2,768.25. By then 15 establishments were open, including a department store, furniture store, drug store, auto supply company, grocery store and deli. This month there was another celebration: the coming of Citicorp with a bank that will open later in the year. Mr. Smith says it will mean more business loans, more home-improvement loans. Also on the boards is a Safeway store. East River Park, as the only regional shopping center in Ward 7, now has more requests for commercial space than it can accommodate, and is trying to "be very selective," says Mr. Smith.
That's quite a haul from four years ago, and now the partners are looking around once again -- this time for still more ways to grow and prosper. The neighbors like minding their own business