Last night Councilmember Bowser held the first of several open meetings with Ward 4 small business owners. Present were representatives from Yes! Organic Market, the Missouri Avenue Market, the Korean-American Grocers Association of Greater Washington, the Latino Economic Development Corporation, Colony Liquor, Brightwood Bistro, Sweet Mango Cafe, Jackson-Hewitt, Quality Printers, Crown Bakery, and several others that I failed to scribble down in my notebook.
Bowser stated that regardless of how each particular business owner feels about Wal-Mart (and opinions vary widely among business owners, just as they do among residents), her goal is to negotiate a community benefits agreement that will protect standing businesses should the deal go through, as well as (I hope) make Brightwood and Ward 4 friendly toward new small business development in the future (she mentioned that there are "models that we can look toward in terms of impact mitigation"...I'd like to know more about those models). (I should note here that due to the fact that this is a matter-of-right proposal, Wal-Mart isn't under any obligation to honor a CBA of any kind, and I highly doubt that they would commit to a CBA simply out of the goodness of their little Wal-Mart hearts, which really scares me, but I digress...)
She also mentioned that she is negotiating with the Office of Planning about keeping the mixed-use residential element that Foulger-Pratt had initially planned for the site.
She brought up the well-known dilemma: although there are obviously a lot of people who patronize Georgia Avenue shops, there are also a lot of residents who can't even name a store on Georgia Avenue. She noted that there are basic needs that aren't readily available here. "Where can you buy clothes?" she asked, and the room went silent (that's because I restrained myself from yelling, "The Georgia Avenue Thrift Store, duh! Where about 80% of the 'new' clothing that I've bought since I moved to Brightwood came from! And don't I look fabulous, by the way??").
So what can we do to ensure a palatable business environment here? Various attendees stated ideas: Brightwood needs marketing, and branding; give tax breaks to business owners, not property owners; locate your niche market and cater to it passionately; reinvigorate the Great Streets plan. (Regarding that last point, Bowser mentioned that this can't be done without increasing residential density, and that many Brightwood residents are vehemently opposed to doing so.)
The Beacon Brightwood Business Alliance circulated a questionnaire, aiming to collect data on business owners' thoughts on Wal-Mart's potential impact. I'm looking foward to seeing the results of the survey and seeing how they compare to those of the Latino Economic Development Corporation's survey.