Op-EdOpinion

DREUX-KELLY/BAKER: Washingtonians Should Make their First Priority Local Needs 

As the city begins to reawaken after the pandemic, we are once again seeing the surge of the cranes across D.C.’s skyline.

New construction will soon occupy more District corners and with them, the promise of the latest, the newest and the biggest. But one thing that cannot be lost among the blueprints and the scaffolds is the support and engagement of small, independent and minority-owned local businesses.

We must be engaged. We must be considered. We must be given a seat at the table.

As the first African-American female co-executive directors of Think Local First DC, an independent business association that advocates for small local businesses, the past year has been all about helping business owners survive the myriad ripple effects of the pandemic.

As small businesses owners, the work we do at TLF DC has always been close to our hearts but the past year has struck home just how important it is to the District’s ecosystem that our small businesses thrive.

Small businesses are the backbone of this city. When we think about what makes D.C. unique, it’s the small, local, legacy businesses like Ben’s Chili Bowl, Lee’s Flower and Card Shop and Florida Avenue Grill that come to mind. These small minority-owned businesses are the backbone of the U Street Corridor, in particular. Businesses like these are featured in Main Street corridors across the city.

Development is changing the face of our shared home; there are no two ways about that. And it’s not a bad thing – we don’t need to treat a new construction site as a harbinger of death for our most beloved small businesses. Just don’t shut us out. When small businesses have a seat at the table, we can help to make sure the city evolves without forgetting what made it so special in the first place.

Developers need to understand and respect the unique richness and history of a community before they start drawing up plans to change it. When this mutual understanding and respect takes place, a positive symbiotic relationship can form between developers and local small businesses.

District leaders will soon decide what will replace the Frank D. Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs at the corner of 14th and U. There are two very different proposals under consideration. We urge our leaders to choose the proposal that addresses the concerns of the independent businesses in the neighborhood and allays their fears that they will not be replaced but rather strengthened, by what will be built there.

This is exactly why we decided to support the Reeves CMC Venture proposal. It’s not about choosing sides but rather about joining a conversation in which their team has invited us.

When Reeves CMC Venture unveiled its plan to redevelop 14th and U, they made sure we had a seat at the table to discuss keeping ‘local first’ prominent in the historic neighborhood. We heard directly that the team wants to see local retail and restaurants succeed and thrive and that they don’t plan to create more competition for our beloved institutions there. The plan seems more open to the community, choosing affordable housing over a hotel chain and arts destinations over a food hall.

Additionally, the project’s prestigious and community-based proposed tenants include: The Washington Jazz Arts Institute, CityDance DREAM, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre/The Ailey School, and Christian Tabernacle Child Development Center. Even more important, the project will house the new national headquarters of the NAACP. These cultural institutions will add to the rich legacy of the neighborhood, historically known as Black Broadway. Reeves will fit into the neighborhood beautifully, adding to its rich tapestry of artistic voices.

We hope that this new partnership exemplifies the positive outcomes for our cherished local businesses when careful planning and forethought are given to the development of a neighborhood built on the backs of its small business owners. We need more developers like the Reeves CMC Venture team – developers who think and care deeply about how their work impacts the communities where they build.

Kim Dreux-Kelly and Karen Baker are co-executive directors of Think Local First DC.

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