- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

The vision seemed clear enough in November of 1998. Business leaders, D.C. residents and government coordinators had identified 40 action items to pump new life into the District's ailing economy. Best of all, Mayor-elect Anthony A. Williams was leading the charge, standing squarely in support of the Strategic Economic Development Plan.
The public-private endeavor had the ingredients of success: impassioned backers, objectives that were ambitious without being unrealistic and an easy-to-read road map showing how to get from where the city was to where it wants to be.
It turns out there was something missing: commitment. Mr. Williams, through his actions since that day, has not lived up to the public side of that partnership. An administration that was in a position to hit the ground running on economic development has instead dawdled.
The question of where the mayor and his people stood on the plan was supposedly settled Thursday when D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, Ward 4 Democrat, hauled key economic development officials into a Committee on Economic Development hearing.
She wanted answers.
"The successful completion of action items depends both on the public sector and on the private sector and, most importantly, on the adoption by the mayor and his staff of the guiding principles of the study," Mrs. Jarvis said.
Eric Price, the District's new deputy mayor for planning and economic development, reported on the actions taken so far and pledged his allegiance to the plan in front of the council committee. It is his job to spearhead the completion of the strategic plan.
"We moved a good deal from the point where it wasn't clear whether the mayor was behind this plan," Mrs. Jarvis said after the hearing.
If she's right, this can be a new beginning. Of course, those involved in creating the plan thought they had made a new beginning 14 months ago.
Mr. Williams' efforts to spur economic development have so far lacked focus and drive. He fulfilled action item number 37 of the plan by creating the office of deputy mayor for planning and economic development. But it seems the two men who filled that job were not given clear direction that much of their work had already been mapped out in the plan.
It's one thing to hire a man and tell him he needs to come up with a way to attract business and residents to the city. It's another to hand him a plan and tell him it's his job to implement it.
Mr. Price doesn't see it that way. In an interview Friday, he said the mayor did both. The deputy mayor, who started his job three months ago, said it took time to evaluate the 40 action items and to decide whether they were in the city's best interest.
"Some felt we weren't acting, but I think it's more that we slowly have come together and brought our own team together," he said.
That now appears to be over.
"The recommendations are part of everything we are doing," Mr. Price said. "We have to attract and retain business; we have to bring back populations … and we have to focus on strategic areas."
Welcome aboard.
It isn't so much that it took too long for Mr. Price to get going on the action plans. It's that his predecessor, Douglas Patton, the interim deputy mayor who was hired to jump-start the District's economic development efforts, never got going at all.
That left volunteers and business groups to carry the ball alone. Half a partnership has half a chance of being successful.
The private side of this plan has done its part and some city agencies have begun to address some of the actions.
Plans to bring a Metro station to New York Avenue are proceeding at a fast pace, with pledges of private funding already in place. The city is exploring procedures for regularly tearing down blighted buildings. A D.C. Technology Council has been formed, with 160 corporate members.
But some action items in which the administration's involvement is paramount are proceeding at a slower pace.
"Things that needed to get approval by the mayor's office have not gone through," said Todd Mason, president of Atlantic Video and co-chairman of the Media-Publications Group established while creating the plan. "It's been a brick wall."
Efforts to bring more housing downtown, action item number 19, have been disjointed.
Terry Lynch, an advocate of housing and executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, is not impressed with the mayor's economic development efforts so far.
"Because he didn't have anyone in place, he failed to provide any constructive economic development leadership," Mr. Lynch said.
Since the region's healthy economy provided an opportunity that was never seized, Mr. Lynch said the mayor has done more harm than good in the past year. The same could be said for the way the administration's inaction has affected volunteers who have pledged to help the mayor get his job done.
"All these [volunteers] are still ready to keep going, but there's only so many times you can rally the troops," Mr. Mason said. "We have really been stalled since last summer."
Now, that the city has a new economic development chief and he has acknowledged that the strategic plan is sensible, it is time to make up for lost time. Otherwise, the District's private partners will become disenchanted and we'll be back to half a partnership. But it's the mayor and the city who risk having to try to do it all alone.
Bernard Dagenais, business editor of The Washington Times, can be reached to 202/636-3173.


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