Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Debunking the myth: Does Ward 8 really need more small businesses?

I think small businesses are important -- they make up a much needed portion of any community's character and provide much needed services and amneties. I'm a small business owner myself. I love small business owners and I would love to see them get more support.

That being said, I always hear people (and government officials) claim that Ward 8 needs more small businesses. At every development meeting (the few we have anyway) someone in the audience always asks if new commercial space will be dedicated to small businesses.

That got me thinking. "Aren't almost all of Ward 8's current businesses by definition 'small'?"  It's not like chain stores are flocking east of the river. Most Ward 8 residents who can, are still leaving for the most basic goods and services.

When I think about the businesses districts of Anacostia, Congress Heights and Bellevue they are made up mostly of nonprofit organizations and small businesses: mom and pop shops, carryouts, and liquor stores.  The only "chain" store I can think of in Ward 8 is the Giant in Congress Heights. The only franchises I can think of are Popeye's, Subway, Cricket Wireless, and ACE Check Cashing.  If I let my cynical side show I would make the argument that Ward 8's biggest "business" was social service agencies and nonprofits.

Ward 8 has been relying on the corner stores, and the carryouts, and the mom and pop stores to provide almost exclusively most of its basic needs. But when I go in those shops I don't necessarily see people who look like me. Those businesses owners tend to hire "locally" -- as in their immediate family. I don't knock the practice, its practical.  But most of these Ward 8 "small business" are not hiring from within Ward 8 -- at least not in enough numbers necessary to bring down the unemployment rate.

Considering how seriously Ward 8 needs jobs -- and a lot of them -- it would seem to me we could use some "big" businesses with the capacity to hire more people and we could use them now. Let me be clear, I am not suggestioning that all the small businesses need to be replaced with the Whole Foods and CVSs of the world but I am saying we need a mix. Larger and more established stores have the ability (if not always the will) to hire more Ward 8 residents. Also, certain mid-to-large size businesses have the ability to attract customers, and with them much needed foot traffic to our business districts that lead to more customers for nearby small businesses.  Small businesses need customers. They can not survive in a vacuum without a draw that brings them and in Ward 8 with the perception issue we need a really, really, really big draw. A government building is just not going to cut it -- we need a stadium level draw (literally).  If that is not possible the attraction either needs to be the small businesses themselves (and then you need the quality and the density to create a viable district) or something nearby such an entertainment venue or the metro. Right now we don't have any of those things, so until we do, we need to attract and retain a defined retail zone (even a small one) where we can build.

As with our income and housing stock we could use some variety with the size and scope of our businesses and commercial space. You can't grow a vibrant self-sustaining community based exclusively on low incomes, low income rental housing, and small businesses. If you could we would have it by now.We need a balance -- a fair balance for all to thrive.

Right now we have a perception issue. Ward 8 is viewed by most outsiders as "unsafe" or a charity case. A nice place to volunteer during the day but not exactly the place to spend a Friday night.

And as we have discussed before, most big box stores don't want to invest in our community right now because of the low income numbers.  Incomes that are low in part because we don't have the local jobs to combat the high unemployment. Short of a government intervention or incentive program (in the form of tax abatements) for private developers to here I don't see how it is going to happen on its own anytime soon. There are just way too many development opportunities west of the river right now to take a risk on east of the river.

And so the cycle continues. Maybe if we can start saying what we actually need, and not just repeat what we were told we need maybe we can demand more -- and more of it.

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