- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2011

Nearly six months into his term, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is striking a firm tone on the economic pillar of his One City plan and looking to rebound from the scandals that have surrounded the John A. Wilson Building.

Mr. Gray on Monday announced plans to revitalize the job market, real estate prospects and businesses in key portions of the District, highlighting long-stagnant Ward 8 as the epicenter of new growth.

The mayor laid out his economic vision at Yards Park, a part of Ward 6’s Southwest waterfront that is considered a “sign of what’s to come” for the District. A tangible portrait of the effects of the economic recession, the area has been a disappointing work-in-progress to those hoping a vibrant community will emerge around Nationals Park.

But Mr. Gray brought a dose of optimism to the situation, announcing the advent of a Potbelly sandwich shop, Austin Grill Express, a classic diner and other restaurants to the area, along with retail shops and a Harris Teeter grocery store. Office and apartment space will also continue to blossom in the neighborhood, he said.

If development in the Yards was “the next frontier” 10 years ago, the mayor signaled a push across the river for the city’s next great hope.

“Today, I’m absolutely convinced the future of development in the District will be centered in Ward 8,” he said, adding, “I don’t think anyone would have made that statement as recently as three or four years ago.”

Mr. Gray said construction of affordable housing is under way in various parts of the ward, in addition to retail projects.

California-based MVM Technologies, an inkjet-printer supply company, announced on Monday it will move its headquarters to St. Elizabeths Hospitals East Campus and its manufacturing and distribution facility to the former P.R. Harris Educational Center, both in Ward 8.

And Mr. Gray announced that Ballou Senior High School, which has been waiting in line to receive the structural upgrades under way at other schools across the District, will get a new building. Construction should be completed by 2014, he said.

The high schools principal, Rahman Branch, said the school is “absolutely” excited about progress, noting “it’s about time” after an initial target date for improvements by August of this year.

The mayor said the project should cause minimal disruption to students, because they can use the existing building during construction of the new one on adjacent property.

Mr. Gray’s citywide vision calls for collaboration between schools and employers, an emphasis on self-sufficiency and a long-term plan that couples viable D.C. applicants with businesses at hot spots around the city to reverse the tide of unemployment that has breached 20 percent in some areas.

A team led by Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor for economic development, will keep tabs on progress, the mayor said.

Mr. Gray is also reconstituting the Workforce Investment Council - an economic advisory group of public and private organizations - with the hopes of getting more D.C. residents hired and reducing reliance on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Dollars paid to working persons no longer collecting benefits will come back to the District through taxes and local spending, the mayor noted.

“The cycle of joblessness can be a deep well of humiliation,” Mr. Gray said, noting it “fractures families” and “wrecks communities.”

Mr. Gray’s lengthy remarks focused on government’s ability to create the right conditions for businesses to grow. Jobs are joined by education, public safety and fiscal stability in Mr. Gray’s plans for a unified city, a platform that had been lost after a series of early public relations fumbles.

A recent poll found the mayor’s popularity dipped below 50 percent, after a whirlpool of scandals at city hall and drawn-out investigations into his administration’s hiring practices, which appeared to feature “fast-track” jobs for well-connected people. A grand jury is reviewing the claims of Sulaimon Brown, a minor mayoral candidate who says he was paid and promised a job to bash the then-incumbent mayor, Adrian M. Fenty.

Yet the mayor has gained traction in some areas, tipping a U.S. House oversight committee in favor of limited D.C. budget autonomy and calling for continuous protest against federal intrusion in the District’s affairs. He renewed the call for fiscal responsibility by sustaining the city’s funding balance, yet its ability to fund every priority - such as adequate police staffing - remains unclear.