D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is publicizing programs he hopes will alleviate economic woes amid continued ethics questions.
On Monday, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) stopped by an employment pre-screening event for the convenience store chain 7-Eleven, which will soon open two new stores in the city’s Northeast quadrant.
The chain planned to hire 26 District residents for positions at the two stores – news Gray touted as the latest success in his administration’s One City, One Hire employment program. One City, One Hire aims to get private sector employers to hire 10,000 of the estimated 35,000 city residents who are currently unemployed.
Allegations of ethical violations have plagued the Gray administration, which now faces a federal inquiry. Gray has attempted to use programs like One City, One Hire to steer the focus back to his economic development team’s efforts to restore the city’s economy.
This issue of the American Observer focuses on the District’s economy and poverty issues. The Observer’s Jimm Phillips spoke with Jose Sousa, communications director for the office of the city’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, about what Gray’s administration is doing to fix D.C.’s economic woes.
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Jimm Phillips: Now that we’re about 10 months into Mayor Gray’s administration, is the city’s economy improving at the rate the mayor was hoping for?
Jose Sousa: That’s a tough question. I think it’s definitely better than we anticipated. Basically a couple times a year, the Chief Financial Officer, which is actually an independent body, does its new revenue forecast estimates. This year, based on some renewed estimates, there was an additional $80 million to $100 million that showed up in the District because of aggressive collection rates. That additional money helped the District put some programs back on the table.
Additionally, because of the fact that there’s been a better climate for refinancing some of the District’s existing debt, we’ve been able to actually pay less on older debt we have because interest rates are so low. So that’s actually a cost savings to the District again.
There’s been some thawing of lending that got different developers the capital they needed to start working on their projects in different parts of the community. What that also means is when you start constructing, you’ll more quickly get to a point where you’re getting revenue back in from property taxes, sales taxes from retail or taxes on other transactions.
JP: You mentioned that there were several development projects that were able to get back on track. Could you give some examples?
JS: So the largest one that I can speak to is the CityCenterDC project, which is on the old convention center site. The District will be able to eventually derive 3,000 permanent jobs and somewhere in excess of $75 million to $100 million in new tax revenue annually from that project. … We broke ground on it this past spring, and it’ll deliver towards the close of 2014, early 2015.
Similarly, the new Giant grocery store broke ground on the H Street Corridor, at Third and H streets NE. Same concept: apartments above, a grocery store below. You’re taking a long-dormant site and creating new retail and new residences.
JP: One particular project has gotten a lot of press – the planned Walmart stores in Northeast. What is going on with those plans?
JS: Walmart has proposed to locate four stores in the District. The land these four stores would go on are all privately-owned and controlled parcels. So the District is in conversations with Walmart around making sure that we can work through some of the challenges that would take place. There’s been a lot of buzz around something called a Community Benefits Agreement that they’d like to see Walmart sign with the District. I can’t go into any real detail on what that agreement might entail right now because we’re still in active negotiations with them.
JP: There was an article in the Washington Business Journal about a week or so ago in which some business leaders criticized the Gray administration for focusing too much on projects that are relatively long-term instead of pushing short-term stimulus to jump-start the economy. Do you thing that’s a legitimate criticism?
JS: No. In fact a lot of the projects that I’m talking about that are under construction right now represent real-time improvements. Those are District residents getting hired and paying payroll taxes. Those are projects that are going to deliver in the short-term. Basically I’ll take it because those are things that were not happening before.
Specifically you were referring to Mr. Adrian Washington’s comments [Washington is founder of the Neighborhood Development Corporation, which touts itself as the leader of the revitalization of D.C.’s Georgia Avenue corridor]. Mr. Washington himself has business before the District; he’s got a couple projects that have delivered. He’s not wrong – we have been focusing on a good mix of both smaller-scale projects and some larger-scale. So I think there’s a healthy balance of different projects, all of which represent getting residents back to work and on getting projects moving again.
JP: Tell me about the One City, One Hire program.
JS: One City, One Hire is actually run out of the Department of Employment Services, but I can give you an overview of how it works. It’s based on a program out of Atlanta, and it’s something we’re working on with the D.C. Chamber of Commerce as well. It’s meant to put as many of our unemployed District residents back to work as possible. There are approximately 50,000 advertised job openings in D.C. region right now from a variety of different skill levels, from entry-level to executive-level. There are about 35,000 people in the District who are unemployed who have varying different skill sets. One of the things we’re trying to do is to identify where some of those skill sets do match up with existing jobs that are on the books.
We’ve had almost 200 different businesses commit to hiring District residents who are currently unemployed. For instance, today the mayor was out at two different 7-Elevens who are hiring 20 District residents – people who were unemployed and were participating in One City, One Hire. The program also provides for on-the-job training that the District helps subsidize through the Department of Employment Services. There’s also an apprenticeship program. So a lot of the individuals who are being offered to these companies are pre-screened. They’ve gone through programs in the Department of Employment Services and as a result, some of that vetting has already taken place for a business to hire that individual.
JP: The goal of One City, One Hire is to provide employment for about 10,000 unemployed District residents, but there are about 35,000 unemployed people in the city total. What sorts of programs does the city have to provide employment help for the 25,000 or so people who won’t be able to get jobs through One City, One Hire?
JS: Part of that is through the Workforce Investment Council, where we examine how we’re investing our job training funds and making sure residents have the proper training for jobs that are coming on-line.
Another way that we’re doing that is to make sure we’re enforcing our First Source programs, which are meant to ensure that at least 51 percent of new hires on any job undertaken with District funds are given to District residents.
The other thing is that we have a great partnership with our community college that has created a brand-new avenue for employment by having job-training dollars flow to them through different parts of the private sector. Everybody’s main goal here is to get District resident back to work, and one of the ways you do that is by getting projects off the ground.
JP: A recent article in The Washington Post found that the D.C. region had the lowest poverty rate of any major metropolitan area in the nation. However, the city itself has a 19 percent poverty rate. Beyond some of the jobs programs you’ve already mentioned, what is the Gray administration doing to bring the city’s poverty rate more in line with the rest of the metro area?
JS: There are a couple different avenues. One way is through a program called New Communities. It’s a three-for-one replacement of existing units in typical public housing sites. We just recently broke ground on the first true building of the Northwest One New Communities. What that would do is create a one-third affordable, one-third market-rate and one third subsidized housing community that basically allows for a blended community for residents to live in.
This was created about six years ago, during Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration. The point is to take housing sites that needed improvements and create new opportunities for them with new residences and attaches some new retail in the existing community. There’s four of them – Northwest One in Ward Six, Lincoln Heights in Ward Seven, Barry Farm in Ward Eight and Park Morton in Ward One.
What we’ve done is that we’ve created replacement units for the residents from the existing communities so you can build on the former public housing site. This is a partnership we have with the D.C. Housing Authority and third-party private developers.
One of the key parts of this is our human capital investment. We work with residents who want to remain in those neighborhoods in better housing units. We work with them on financial literacy, assist them with any alcohol or drug abuse issues that they have, get them the proper treatment that they need, to give them the life and job skills that they’ll need in order to become productive members of the neighborhoods they live in. This program was designed six years ago and we’re now starting to see it come to fruition.