SIMMONS: McDuffie wrapping his arms around development

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Kenyan McDuffie escorts a reporter into his office, opens the window treatments to let the sun shine in and assumes his usual perch at the head of a rectangular table.

Since winning the race to represent Ward 5 on the D.C. Council five months ago today, Mr. McDuffie hasn’t made headlines as an emerging political personality. That’s probably a good thing, considering that some of his most likeable colleagues are in the prosecutorial sightlines of the U.S. attorney and other investigators.

Indeed, Mr. McDuffie won his seat after Ward 5’s Harry Thomas Jr. stepped down in disgrace, admitting he misdirected public money for personal use. Thomas also left office amid constituents’ cries that he neglected the needs and wants of Ward 5, whose major corridors include neighborhoods along North Capitol Street; New York, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Michigan and Florida avenues; and Bladensburg and Benning roads.

And all are ripe for substantial infusions of economic development.

“We need to connect the dots to successful small businesses, affordable housing, increased job growth and community involvement,” Mr. McDuffie, a Democrat, said in an interview last week. “These efforts should be community driven and linked to quality-of-life issues like public safety and traffic planning.

“We’re in talks with residents, businesses and developers, and [D.C.] agencies” he said. “Our gateways and corridors are hemorrhaging dollars, and we need a strategy to make the city a destination.”

Unveiling a comprehensive legislative strategy that adjoins the various pieces of the city’s puzzle likely won’t happen this year, said Mr. McDuffie, who hopes his Retail Incentive Amendment Act of 2012 will bring home a substantial slab of bacon for Ward 5.

Co-sponsored by several other council members — including Democrats Yvette M. Alexander of Ward 7, Mary M. Cheh of Ward 3 and Jack Evans of Ward 2 — and co-introduced by Michael A. Brown, at-large independent and chairman of the Economic Development and Housing Committee, the legislation would designate North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue as “retail priority areas” and position them for revitalization with infusions of public and private dollars.

In many aspects, Mr. McDuffie said, there has been no funding for Ward 5 to be targeted as a thriving ward, and “my bill is not the end but simply the beginning of the process.”

How right he is, since many longtime businesses and residents of the ward have been yelping for such a kick-start for years.

Big-box stores such as Costco, whose Ward 5 store is slated for a late-November opening, and Wal-Mart, which has laid its hands on desolated parcels along New York Avenue in Northeast, would help stem the flow of D.C. dollars to the suburbs. And as backhoes move the earth for new market-rate and affordable-housing projects in the ward, plans still need to shake loose for the promising multiacre McMillan site, which is a former reservoir. There is also an eclectic mix of new and old small businesses, including popular eateries like mainstay Carl’s Subs and newcomer Flip It on Rhode Island Avenue Northeast.

Mr. McDuffie’s predecessor supported large and small economic development too, but interests favoring medical marijuana establishments, gay and adult entertainment venues, and social service access seemingly overshadowed priorities of residents and taxpayers during his tenure.

Now, to be frank, voters didn’t exactly hand Mr. McDuffie a mandate about their priorities.

On May 15, Mr. McDuffie defeated 11 challengers and emerged victorious from the special election with 45 percent of the vote, while his two closest challengers together garnered 35 percent of the total.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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