Monday, June 17, 2013

Saint Elizabeths West | 14,000 new customers or 14,000 lost opportunities?

Ariel view of Coast Guard Headquarters as of April 2013
(photo courtesy of United States Coast Guard)
Come this August over 14,000 employees will be relocated to the new Coast Guard headquarters on the Saint Elizabeths West campus. There has been a lot of talk of those employees coming from behind the confines (and comforts) of the secure campus and into Congress Heights. Mixed into all of that talk is a lot of hope that local businesses will greatly benefit from the influx of these new potential customers. I've heard more than one government official and agency representative say that the food options on the the new headquarters will be limited as a way to "strongly encourage" the campus employees to patronize food options from merchants right outside of the gate.

This Sunday, I was having my car cleaned at the Martin Luther King Jr Car Wash which is located directly across from the Saint Elizabeths East Campus, a few hundred yards down from the West campus gate for the Coast Guard HQ.  As I was waiting I took a long, hard, and honest look at the local businesses within walking distance of the East and West Campus. I tried to imagine their appeal to federal workers in need of food and shopping options during the long work day.

Georgina's Restaurant (AKA Players Lounge) after its new facelift
To be fair, Sunday isn't the best day to try and judge the vibrancy and diversity of Congress Height's main street. Most of what we call our "business district" doesn't even have Sunday hours. The street is pretty quiet, not a lot of foot traffic besides those congregating around the corner stores.

I found myself standing on MLK Ave SE, looking at our business corridor through the eyes of those 14,000 Coast Guard employees. Eyes that are more likely than not coming from communities with much more to offer in quality, quantity and diversity. Their suburban neighborhoods that probably have more food options per block than what we have in all of Ward 8. This is not to assign blame or to set up a "us vs. them" debate (I hate those scenarios btw). If I were to really be honest, I don't patronize most of the shops on MLK in Congress Heights myself and I live right around the corner. It's not about proximity, its about quality. It is also about convenience, a lot of the shops are closed by the time I get home from work.

A few doors down, Kings Discount Store
Everything from burner phones to hair weaves
I love small businesses but I don't patronize most of the small businesses on MLK in Congress Heights. Most of my reasons relate to quality, service, price, and options. Regardless of the reason, I spend the vast majority of my money elsewhere. When I need to go grocery shopping I head to the Safeway in Southwest. When I want to meet my friends for dinner and drinks I head to H Street NE or right over the bridge to Barracks Row (looking forward to that changing when Cedar Hill Bar & Grill in Anacostia opens). When I need a prescription filled I take it to Grubb's Pharmacy across the street from my office in Anacostia. When I just have to have something different for lunch than Anacostia's Subway or Mama's Kitchen (or Fireside who lets us text them our orders) I drive over to Navy Yard and partake of one of the dozen foodtrucks sure to be parked there. When given a choice (often the only choice) I choose to spend my money elsewhere -- for now. Congress Heights' main street is not my "main" source of services or amneties and that concerns me.

In the 6 years I have lived in Congress Heights
I have never patronized Merry's Kitchen

As a Congress Heights resident, blogger, business owner, and yes, advocate I know it is not the politically correct thing to say but it is the truth. I like dealing with facts (regardless of the emotional impact) because when you acknowledge there is a problem you can go about solving it. Pretending it is not there does no good. I don't think that I am the only Congress Heights or Ward 8 resident who doesn't spend even half of their dollars in their own ward. Anacostia sees a lot more of my dollars than Congress Heights because I work in Anacostia and there are a lot more viable options for me in Anacostia than in Congress Heights.

So convenient?

So with that in mind I found myself asking questions that I haven't heard addressed during all of this optimistic talk:

"Would a significant number of those 14,000 employees really want to utilize what we have to offer right now?"

"Are the small businesses currently on MLK Avenue taking action to accommodate the new influx of potential customers? Do they have what it takes to attract these new customers and the  competitive edge to keep them?"

"Does the corridor look appealing and feel safe right now?"

"Is Congress Heights competitive to nearby neighborhoods such as Navy Yard and Barracks Row?"

So I have to ask. Putting aside the lofty hopes for tomorrow and dealing with the cold hard facts of today are the surrounding businesses ready? Are any of us ready?

So while I appreciate the plans to ensure that the Coast Guards on site cafeteria may be small in scale, I won't be all that surprised when I see the caravan of foodtrucks make their treck onto the West campus.

After all, a girl's gotta eat.

For a listing of businesses in Congress Heights visit Congress Heights Main Streets. 

Just outside of the West Campus gates a man from the 801 Shelter nearby sleeps and waits

Another new convenient store 

Congress Heights: A great place to do business?

Getting ready for new business? The pizza place (center) after their storefront renovation

A little farther up MLK Ave 
Wider shot of the same cluster of stores

Photos taken on Sunday

Close up shot of the 3100 block of MLK Ave in Congress Heights

Banner says, "A Great Place To Do Business"

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the teej. said...

This last photo is so powerful.

DaReslnt1 said...

I have lived in the 20032 zip code since 2004 and as of now the only places that I patronize is the dry cleaners on Albama, IHOP , Popeyes if I am STARVING and Giant when I need something last minute. I NEVER EVER go to any of the small stores on MLK. I used the gas station one time when I was on Empty and I was disgusted.

The liquor store needs to go first. Too much loitering which also keeps the park full with activity all day and night especially in the summer. Subway looks filthy as well as the take out. Just the thought of eating from any of those venues makes me want to puke.

The Advoc8te said...

I'm going to have to cosign on several things that DaResInt1 said.

I go to the Popeyes in Congress Heights ONLY when I am starving.

I only going to the gas station in Congress Heights when my tank is on E and the yellow light is on (or when my tires is flat which is pretty much all the time now). I have a good excuse, when I first moved here in 2007 I had the misfortune of getting a gasoline shower -- the City Paper covered it later for their cover story. After nearly incinerating myself trying to pump gas I pretty much steer clear.

In terms of Merry's Kitchen and Subway I have a general rule when eating out. If the owner/operator won't spend the time and effort to clean the storefront windows (something they know I can see) I don't have a whole lot of faith in them cleaning the things I can't see (like the kitchen) therefore I never ever eat in a place with dirty windows.

I have been to the liquor on the corner a few times but I have to hold my breath because the smell of urine outside the door is so strong and the loitering around the front just makes me uneasy in general. Also the men trying to "holla" at me in the store can be a little aggravating.

Anonymous said...

Glad to read these comments, in a way. I will be moving into a Phase IV condo in Sheridan Station in the late fall. While I will be attending as many neighborhood events and going to as many neighborhood venues as possible, I expect to do most of my shopping and socializing in my old Navy Yard neighborhood. Btw, Sheridan Station is nearly sold out and is planning for its next phase. Yeah! And we seem to have another developer in the mix: River East at the Anacostia Metro. They have a website.

Anonymous said...

I've come to realize that "local" doesn't mean the small town mom and pop shops of my youth. Those mom and pop shops may have been small but they were neat, clean, and had the type of customer service that had my family coming back time and time again.

I don't know what to call the mess on MLK and Malcolm X. The storefronts look run down, dirty, and the cashiers are behind bullet proof glass. Their products are more of the same diabetes inducing junk food that is the staple of most corner stores in poor neighborhoods.

I too wish the liquor store would close and take the chinese carryout and all the other junk with them. Most of these "small businesses" are just temporary, to suck the few dollars out of the neighborhood without providing decent service or options.

I will not be sad to see them go and my neighbors and I look forward to the day when we can eat and shop in our neighborhood at nice, clean and healthy establishments. I don't really care who opens them although I do hope they employ local residents.

Carlene said...

I'm guilty of taking my money elsewhere as well. I purposefully don't patronage carryouts and corner stores because I want them to go away. Most of them tend to be shady establishments with shady business practices.

Gallegoscot said...

I really like Mama's Kitchen and MLK Deli has some good food (I had their chicken salad sandwich and slice of cake), but they close early on weekdays and are closed ALL weekends (what?). Our Popeyes doesn't even sell the complete menu (cole slaw?), so if I ever want that I'll drive down to South Capitol and get it in P.G. County. I've not ventured into any of the other places in the over two years I've lived here for the same reasons other's have mentioned above. We have a long way to go to get appealing options that will have Government workers venture out. When my office first moved to the Navy Yard there was very few choices, but bit by bit things are opening up and the area is now quite vibrant. It will take longer (we don't have a stadium), but I think the choices will evolve as more workers head over to St. Elizabeths.

Gallegoscot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
H St LL said...

Excellent article and comments. I do think you are right that the Anacostia commercial district is more appealing. As the (primarily African-American) gentrification continues, hopefully Congress Heights will see an increased frequency of improvements.

Valarie said...

I agree that this is an excellent and much needed article. MLK Deli of course is no longer in existence because the chicken salad was fabulous. I like Azitouna now as an option but I was struck recently about our standards when talking with my staff about lunch at Azitouna. They said to me they are clean and the food seems fresh and they continued to repeat that phrase. I think it is because we have not had that as a given in our neighborhood so it is indeed comment worthy. I know that for myself when I think about the qualities to share with someone about an eating establishment that I want to recommend, I talk about decor, price, menu options first because I take cleanliness and freshness for granted.

The Advoc8te said...

Valerie I think you are spot on. I think the normal things we take for granted in other parts of the city is a huge deal here. "Clean" is probably my #1 concern with eating on MLK in Congress Heights, that is a total given everywhere else I go because the decor of the place is so much better not to mention the options.

Some may disagree but I think the bar has been set so low for our "local" businesses that it is almost non existant.

FYI - I thought MLK Deli was closed. I hadn't seen them "open" in years. Sorry I missed out on that chicken salad but I remember the 3 times I went there when I first opened they were always closed so I stopped going.

Sari said...

I suggest that we start with one store/carry out/gas station. Really sit down with the owners and explain what we want. Ask for fresh produce, clean windows, longer hours etc. Then we must really support this one establishment. You have to build your house one nail at a time. I remember when Bloomingdale had nothing but Liqor stores and carry outs. Now those same stores are organic produce boutiques. There is strength in collective force and speaking up for what we want. Green matters more than black, white, brown or yellow.

The Advoc8te said...

Hi Sari--

Thanks for the comment.

From what I have heard from others who work for Congress Heights community development organizations is that they HAVE reached out to biz owners re: improvements. There is even money on the street to improve their storefronts but what the staffers are seeing is a lack of buy in by those business owners. There are two sets of folks here. The people who actually own the buildings and the operators of the businesses within. Sometimes (okay most of the time) the case in Congress Heights is there is no real incentive to "doing better." Either the property owner is lax or the operator is more focused on increasing their bottom line, not investing in the improvement of the community. Why clean their windows, improve their storefronts, and renovate when the people who shop there don't really have an option to go elsewhere? Why stock healthier food options when their customers are buying Cheetos by the barrel?

From what I am hearing there needs to be more carrot and a bit more stick.

I could be wrong but I believe Congress Heights has benefitted from the storefront improvement project in the past and it is currently active right now.

The Advoc8te said...

I suppose I think the current rational with some businesses currently on the strip is "fast money vs. long money"


H St LL said...

More thoughtful comments. BTW they have a program in Oakland to address this very type of thing:

It has been quite successful there, both for the community and the business owners. Something we could emulate here?

The Advoc8te said...

Thanks H St LL! I am going to check that out now. :)

I've heard of DC doing something similar with the corner stores.

@dcjams said...

Thank you for this post. I've lived in Congress Heights for 3+ years, and I frequent the Giant on Alabama Avenue, but I do not patronize any other neighborhood businesses due to all of the aforementioned problems. I know there is a market here for clean, friendly, locally-owned retail and restaurants -- aside from the 14k fed employees -- but I do hope that those new potential customers are incentive enough to bring a breath of fresh air to the MLK corridor. It should be a business district we can all be proud of...

StringsAttached said...

The problem in two words, Marion Barry.

Congress Heights, and the 8th Ward in general, need an advocate to speak up for what will ATTRACT good business investment and a working class population. Let's be honest, the individuals that continue to vote for Councilmember Barry are not the individuals that read this blog or care about seeing the neighborhood improve.