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Dupont Circle Main Streets Organization Credited for Programs Helping Merchants

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the February 2008 issue pdf

By April Fehling*

On any given day, hundreds of pedestrians rush past a squat brick building tucked right off of Dupont Circle. Inside, Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets’ one staff member, Executive Director Morgan Zehner, is coordinating an ambitious effort to enhance the Connecticut Avenue, P Street, and 17th Street corridors.

Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets (HDCMS) is one of hundreds of “Main Streets” revitalization programs across the country created to, among other things, assist local communities in reversing the decay of older shopping and commercial streets with the view to preserving those historic places and making them once again viable corridors where businesses can thrive.

Established in the summer 2003, HDCMS aims to promote economic development while preserving Dupont Circle’s historic character. DC’s nine Main Streets programs are tax exempt organizations supported with five-year grants from the DC Office of Commercial Revitalization, which passes through funds received from the federal government which are appropriated for this nationwide program.

The National Parks Service donates the one-room building, originally built as a public restroom for the Circle, for HDCMS’ operations, which it shares with the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission. This type of in-kind support has been vital to Dupont Circle’s Main Streets program, which is led by a volunteer board of voting representatives from 10 businesses, two churches, two residents and another four non-voting members from neighborhood organizations.

The Hilton Washington has twice donated facilities and food for HDCMS’ annual “Spring Fling” gala silent auction, while the Carlyle Suites has provided space for the annual “Taste of Dupont,” featuring food from local restaurants. These two events brought in just over $20,000 last year to support HDCMS’ projects and operational costs.

Over the past several years, HDCMS has reached out to businesses, residents and community groups with projects ranging from subsidies for new sidewalk iron tree box borders and a holiday window display competition, to the creation of a local business map and a rodent control brochure. The group also hopes to complete a long-stalled beautification project for the Connecticut Avenue median between R and S Streets this year.

Businesses and residents credit HDCMS for making Dupont a more attractive place to shop and dine. Caitrine Callison, owner of clothing consignment shop Secondi at Connecticut Avenue and R Street, said the colorful new banners on neighborhood light poles along Dupont’s commercial streets “make us look more festive and alive . . . Dupont Circle is looking very good.” HDCMS spent $25,000 printing and installing the banners, which feature four designs created pro-bono by local graphic design firm Fathom Creative.

Locals also laud Dupont Main Streets’ “Graffiti SWAT Team.” Led by HDCMS board member Gil Hill, the all-volunteer force sweeps the neighborhood to remove graffiti and flyers once a month. Hill also credits the DC Department of Public Works (DPW) for the cooperation his group receives from DPW’s own graffiti removal teams when their help is requested.

In addition to special undertakings such as the graffiti removal, Hill, one of two resident representatives on the HDCMS board, says Dupont Main Streets has also created something less tangible: better communication. “At one time there was a great amount of antipathy between the businesses and the residents,” he said. But with board representation from the ANC, Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA), Dupont Circle Conservancy (DCC) and Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association (DCMAP), Hill says HDCMS has eased antagonism over issues like proposed sidewalk patios, awnings and the like. Zehner’s regular attendance at ANC, DCCA and DCC meetings has also helped, Hill added.

Jamie Leeds, owner and chef of Hank’s Oyster Bar at 17th and Q Streets, says participating in HDCMS also “creates camaraderie among business owners” themselves. “It gives businesses the opportunity to voice their opinions to each other,” she said, and to work together and buy things from each other if we need to.”

“I look at [HDCMS] as a constituent service to the City Council,” said HDCMS board member Mark Medley, co-owner of Mark and Orlando’s restaurant on P Street. “You’re not always going to agree, but at least you’re communicating . . . [and] that saves a lot of time for the Council or the Mayor’s office from trying to settle disputes.”

Perhaps the most often cited achievement of Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets has been its role in mitigating the impact of the P Street streetscape project. Several business owners in the 2000 and 2100 blocks of P Street said the project had caused real hardship while construction was underway, and that the disruption contributed to diminished revenues. But business owners do credit HDCMS for drawing the city’s attention to the disruption, for working with other neighborhood groups to continue luring customers to the street, and for easing communication between businesses and DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) contractors.

“Without them I think we would have been in some disarray,” said Helene Bloom, co-owner of Soho Tea and Coffee. “They’ve kept business owners informed, whether it’s a broken water main or when [construction] is going to be on each block.” Bloom says when she had a problem with her new patio “Main Streets played a big communication role with the contractors to help us with it. We got it done and it wasn’t a hassle.”

David Perruzza, Main Streets, new Vice President, is the General Manager of JR’s Bar and Grill on 17th Street. As his street prepares for its own streetscape project, he hopes to replicate HDCMS’ P Street outreach efforts. He’s now planning promotions with local businesses to continue luring customers once construction begins, and is encouraging community participation in DDOT’s planning meetings.

Perruzza says the streetscape process will also help Dupont Circle Main Streets better connect with the 17th Street community. While several 17th Street businesses have been active in HDCMS, Perruzza acknowledges that “we’ve been focused mainly on Connecticut and some of the surrounding areas. But they’ve kind of spread the wealth around, and now it’s 17th Street’s turn.”

HDCMS is not without its challenges. Some merchants aren’t clear how the activities of Main Streets, with its diverse board of retail, restaurants, hotels, residents and civic and social service organizations, differs from DC MAP, a membership organization of businesses owners in the Dupont area.

“I’m much more involved with DC MAP,” said Paul Katinas, owner of Annie’s Paramount Steak House on 17th Street. “I have gotten information from Main Streets, but it’s kind of confusing. I’d rather get information from one source.” Others, including two new restaurants on P Street, are unfamiliar with the program. “Main Streets has to do a much better job of educating people about itself,” says board member Hill. “I would like to be much more aggressive in recruiting and expanding. By building up Main Streets we build up the Dupont Circle identity.”

Phyllis Love is assistant director of the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development’s Office of Commercial Revitalization. Love, who oversees DC’s Main Streets programs, says Dupont Circle Main Streets has done a good job of helping businesses “to see that the strength of each individual business is only as strong as the corridor” as a whole. But she says that HDCMS, like all DC’s Main Streets programs, now needs to put a greater emphasis on retaining existing businesses.

New HDCMS board president Perry Morehouse agrees that the organization must do more to provide support to local businesses. “Our economic enhancement committee has never been really strong,” he said. But Morehouse, general manager of the nightclub Omega DC on 22nd Street, points to several initiatives that will provide direct support to businesses in the coming year

One of these is a new sign grant program. While newly revitalized areas like the 14th and U Streets corridors boast vibrant signage, businesses along the established business streets districts like those in Dupont often go years without updating their signs. Historic preservation requirements can make investing in new signs even more onerous. The HDCMS design committee, led by resident board member James Dudney, will offer pro-bono design assistance and HDCMS will help subsidize the cost of new signs for qualifying businesses.

Dupont Main Streets also expects to attract more customers to Dupont businesses with a new P Street valet parking service. Ward 2 Councilmember and Committee on Finance and Revenue chairman Jack Evans and At-large Councilmember and Committee on Economic Development chairman Kwame Brown helped HDCMS secure $56,000 in city funds to launch the pilot program. Starting March 1, patrons will be able to leave their cars at two valet booths on P Street between 20th and 23rd Streets starting at 5:30 p.m. for a $5 fee. Medley, who has led the effort, says the service will increase revenues while reducing parking on residential streets. He hopes the program can eventually serve as a model for other neighborhoods.

HDCMS also plans to help several establishments develop new business strategies by sponsoring one-on-one sessions with a professional business consultant. Love says this kind of technical assistance can help small businesses find ways to increase their revenues while still meeting their operating costs in high-rent areas like Dupont Circle.

Many Dupont business owners are also grappling with competition from other emerging commercial areas — and now a potential economic downturn. Almost everyone interviewed expressed frustration at rising rents, which they say make chain stores increasingly attractive to property owners. While many fear there is little any community group can do to alleviate rent pressures, some hope that HDCMS, together with other civic groups, might somehow pressure the council or local property owners to keep rents affordable for smaller businesses.

And HDCMS has its own funding pressures. The initial grant establishing the program will expire with the fiscal year’s close on September 30, making fundraising one of Morehouse’s top priorities. Out-going president James McGlade is confident HDCMS will be able to continue implementing activities in the neighborhood, but is concerned about finding the funds to maintain the group’s executive director position. Phyllis Love is hopeful the city will provide some funds to continue supporting Main Streets programs, but does not know what form that support might take. “The city won’t be able to fund them indefinitely, but we certainly think they are now turning into a viable organizations are a resource and a partner with the city.”<ENDMARK>

*An Adams Morgan resident since moving to DC five years ago to direct a women’s rights program at American University’s Washington College of Law, April Fehling is now working toward her Masters in Journalism degree at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism.