Reading from prompters at a lumber shed at the Yards Park on the Southeast waterfront, Gray outlined plans to lower an unemployment rate that is as high as 25 percent in some D.C. communities and to expand economic development. “When I envision one city, I envision a place where everyone who wants to earn a decent living can do so,” Gray said. “. . . I realize that this vision of economic growth for our city is not yet a reality.”
He said he attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week in Baltimore and picked up some wisdom: “One of the mayors present made a very cogent statement to the effect that governments cannot create jobs, but they can influence conditions that lead to job creation.”
In an interview, Gray denied that there were any political considerations in his speech. He said his remarks were meant to let businesses know the city is taking steps to help generate jobs.
“We’re trying to stay on course,” he said. “It was planned to roll it out at this stage. You know I like sports metaphors. This is like having a game plan.”
The mayor’s critics — and supporters — have complained that Gray has moved slowly and that his agenda has been overshadowed by several investigations into administration hiring practices and alleged actions of his campaign last summer. Gray has denied the allegations of a former mayoral candidate and fired city employee who says he was hired and paid in exchange for disparaging then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on the campaign trail last year.
The probes, coupled with investigations into several council members, appear to have had an effect on public perceptions. A recent Washington Post poll showed that 41 percent of residents approve of the job Gray is doing — a poor first showing.
Last August, 60 percent of registered voters had a favorable view of Gray. That dropped to 47 percent in the recent Post poll.
Gray will deliver another message Tuesday at the Barry Farm housing development in Ward 8, where he will talk about public safety, another priority of his four-pronged agenda. The others are public education reform and fiscal responsibility.
Monday’s speech was helped significantly by major development projects in the works.
MVM Technologies, a private firm that manufactures ink-jet cartridges and other goods, considered relocating to a number of states — including Arizona, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and West Virginia — according to chief executive Dan Loyer. Instead, the company chose the Washington Highlands neighborhood of Southeast Washington, in Ward 8. Though the company has only nine employees, it expects to open a facility manufacturing ink-jet cartridges, medical devices and sensors in a former city school building, P.R. Harris, and move its headquarters to the east campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital. It expects to hire at least 270 people during its first year in the District.
The city is expected to approve zoning changes and use of the its industrial revenue bond program to allow MVM borrow $80 million at below-market interest rates and lease the school. “I would say that the main reason that we were able to make this decision was the responsiveness and the interest of the city government,” Loyer said.
One of the real estate projects the mayor highlighted involves the property where he gave the speech, a shell of a former Navy building that is being incorporated as part of a new mixed-use waterfront neighborhood, the Yards, being built by Forest City Washington.
Forest City announced that it had signed deals to open a Harris Teeter grocery store and seven eateries, including a Thai-sushi restaurant, a brewery, a Be Right Burger, a Potbelly Sandwich Shop and a 24-hour diner. Construction on some of the new establishments is to begin in the next 30 days.
Gray also relied on his campaign slogan and theme of his administration: “One City.”
He said in an interview that he wants people to understand that “One City” doesn’t mean “everybody gets along.”
“It means everybody is getting an equal chance,” he said, adding that his focus is to help communities east of the Anacostia River catch up with the rest of the city.
On July 9, he will hold a day-long summit at Savoy Elementary School to inform residents of planned projects, such as the construction of the headquarters building for the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the St. Elizabeths campus and new units at Barry Farm.
The mayor received a standing ovation from several audience members when he announced that Ward 8’s Ballou High School would not be renovated; it will get a new building.
Gray, a former council chairman and Ward 7 council member, also said there has been progress on the long-awaited development at Skyland Town Center in Ward 7. “We have seen more movement at this site in the last six months than we have seen in the last six years,” he said.
Marina Streznewski, coordinator of the D.C. Jobs Council, a coalition of nonprofit groups that helps low-income residents find training and work, said the mayor had work to do to get employment for D.C. residents. But she saw signs of progress.
“It’s been a bit slow getting started,” she said. “I understand that there have been challenges surrounding the leaders of DOES [the Department of Employment Services], and I think that’s slowed things down.”