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Our Business Matters: A year-end update

A look-back at the challenges and concerns of community businesses



The past nine months have provided this columnist the privilege of sharing observations, information and feature news profiles on some of the issues, challenges, people and perspectives originating with the local business community. The following is a special year-in-review update on several 2011 “Our Business Matters” topics.

A “scandal scarred” D.C. Council reverses vote on taxes by dropping its opposition to raising local income taxes, already among the very highest in the nation, with a new top rate hitting the small business community hard – allowing for yet another District government spending increase.

Year In Review: 2011

As the year comes to a close, the Council rushed last week to mask some of the stench emanating from the Wilson Building by approving a timid ethics bill after more than two months of discussion punctuated by a nine-hour federal raid and property seizure by IRS and FBI agents at the home of D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).

Meanwhile, criminal and ethical investigations into alleged improprieties by several elected officials drag on, while other Council members suffer the unabated suspicions of residents regarding potential wrongdoing or questionable ethical behavior – in total engulfing a majority of the Council as well as the mayor.

Earlier this month, D.C. Council legislation was introduced addressing taxicab confusions: inferior service, regulatory chaos. Overconfident taxi drivers, believing that their support of Mayor Vincent Gray’s successful 2010 campaign would lead to adoption of their call for a nearly doubling of fares, went ballistic when the D.C. Taxicab Commission instead recommended more modest increases, elimination of most surcharges – including for extra passengers, and a number of service improvements.

Local hospitality industry and business organizations, joined by the grassroots consumer group D.C. Taxi Watch organized by gay Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Jack Jacobson, led the opposition to the huge fare increases requested by drivers and demanded better service, including the ability to accept credit and debit card payments and the forced retirement of aged vehicles.

A hearing on the bill is expected in January. Even if passed, don’t expect to see implementation of service improvements for at least a year.

While the annual “Small Business Survival Index” will soon be issued for 2011, little suspense surrounds whether the District will again rank last among itself and all 50 states – detailing how D.C. small businesses face worst-in-nation obstacles. The release of this nationwide study will undoubtedly herald D.C.’s last place reign again this year – a dishonorable distinction held for as long as anyone can recall and disproportionately affecting the outsized percentage of lesbians and gays engaged in entrepreneurial activities.

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh’s “Scarlet Letter” legislation to post sporadic, outdated, meaningless and arbitrary “snapshot” health inspection “letter grades” at the entrances of all food service and hospitality establishments again languished in limbo with no pick-up of support among her colleagues. Reflective of the folly of this proposal by the Democratic Ward 3 Council member, the city’s meager number of inspectors remains insufficient to conduct timely regular inspections or fulfill required re-inspections.

Washington remained one of the very few locations reflecting on its D.C. bag tax: paper, plastic or puffery? Although neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, institutes a mandatory fee next month, nearly all other jurisdictions across the country have rejected similar business mandates, some by voter referendum.

While retailer compliance remains a significant and serious problem, local consumers have resigned themselves to either paying the minor nuisance price of paper or plastic bag usage or toting around their own household bags. The city has discontinued its recent advertising campaign reminding residents that “the law remains in effect” and checkout clerks now often wait for a customer to volunteer whether they want a bag without needing to ask — except when serving befuddled visitors and tourists.

The last year saw little let-up in the usual shenanigans by neighborhood citizens associations, tiny cadres of random residents forming business licensing protest groups and many Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) members fighting local economic development, commercial projects and alcohol licensing applications. It became more apparent, however, that these squeaky wheels enjoy less support among their neighbors than ever before.

It became widely known in the Dupont Circle area that VIDA Fitness faces opposition by ‘provocateurs’ protesting a liquor license application for the rooftop pool and lounge atop the new U Street fitness center location that opened in mid-July. Prominent community businessman David von Storch was only days ago ultimately successful in acquiring an Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) license — but not before suffering several hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, expenses and lost revenue. The unique amenity will be available to neighborhood residents enjoying one of the sold-out pool memberships beginning April 1 upon the return of warm weather.

A 25-year D.C. entrepreneur, von Storch long ago became familiar with the business obstacles easily and often cavalierly posed by “an extraordinarily small number of people agitated by new development and change.” “The irony of this all,” he now says, “is that as much as the license protestants fought it, the first thing they will mention when selling their home will be its proximity to amenities such as a world-class fitness center, restaurants, nightlife and entertainment.”

A few blocks away, disappointment that a foreign government Chancery — replacing a gay-owned community bed-and-breakfast hobbled by operating restrictions urged by a small number of residents — paved over the front lawn and removed three towering trees underscored that Dupont denizens doth protest too much and illustrated the oftentimes unintended consequences following in the wake of neighborhood obstructionists.

For the record, the Chancery recently removed the concrete ground cover, illegal under the District’s applicable “public space” restrictions, at the urging of the U.S. State Department. No word yet on tree replacement.

In the same vein, Eric Hirshfield provided readers with a personal reflection of his business start-up experiences and participation in industry advocacy efforts regarding D.C. regulatory hurdles as the Duplex Diner pioneer hands over the keys to former bartender and new owner Kevin Lee at mid-year. Hirshfield detailed his experience with the exasperating and notorious so-called “Voluntary Agreement” process leading up to a 1998 opening and continuing operation.

The popular community venue enjoys the renewed affection of customer “stakeholders” under Lee’s stewardship, and the business has recently re-instituted a Sunday brunch. Hirshfield currently assists area businesses in navigating the arduous regulatory process as he examines potential commercial and residential development projects in his Adams Morgan neighborhood.

The highly successful second annual 17th St. Festival unites area to promote business in late September, doubling the number of attendees according to festival co-chair and coordinating sponsor Urban Neighborhood Alliance (UNA) vice president Stephen Rutgers. UNA hopes to continue to build alliances unifying Dupont Circle businesses and residents to overcome the legacy of bitter past regulatory battles, allowing the area to create a more favorable environment for enterprise success – such as that experienced to the more business-friendly east where the 14th and U streets ‘Arts District’ blossoms into more.

Despite the fact that D.C. gives ANCs ‘great weight’ on medical marijuana, the city continued a glacial pace toward implementing its uber-cautious and restricted program. Fear of a threatened federal crackdown resulting from President Obama’s assault on medical marijuana laws has not yet stopped the District from preparing to sometime in the next year issue business licenses for the small number of cultivation centers and dispensaries.

Although the D.C. marriage law engages fewer than predicted during the nearly two years since the initiation of marriage equality in the nation’s capital, minimizing the projected revenue benefit for local businesses and the city’s tax coffers, marriage between heterosexuals has certainly fallen out of favor. Barely half of American adults – a record low of only 51 percent – are currently married, continuing a long downward trend in marriage “market share” unrelated to economic cycles, according to a Pew Research Institute analysis of U.S. Census data released on Dec. 14.

2012 will present both usual and unique challenges and controversies affecting community business activities. A celebratory toast to the hardworking and dedicated purveyors of the amenities enhancing our shared cultural lives is appropriate as we enter the New Year.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at [email protected].

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Opinion | LGBTQ Virginians advocate D.C. statehood

The right of all Americans to be part of our democratic society



My hometown will always be Washington, D.C. It’s the place where I was born and spent all of the first seven days of my life. As a lifelong Virginian however, where I live and attended schools, I straddle two communities important to me. 

As a business owner of 30 years in Washington, D.C., I pay many of my taxes and payroll taxes to the Nation’s Capital while I also pay income tax to Virginia where I’m a citizen.

Most important of all, as a gay Virginia voter, I can think of few lifelong political goals more important to me than achieving statehood for Washington, D.C. One of the compelling reasons I still make my home in Virginia and cross the Potomac River every day of my life, is because of my right as a Virginian to vote for two U.S. senators and for a member of the House of Representatives with the power to vote in Congress.

(It is still shocking to know that, with Washington, D.C. statehood still beyond grasp, the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton who represents D.C. in the U.S. House of Representatives, has never yet had the authority to vote on the floor of the House.)

At an early age, I was dumbfounded to know that D.C. then did not even have a local government. We lacked an elected mayor and city council, with almost all decisions for the District of Columbia made by the federal government. Yet today, even with a mayor and local government in place, it is breathtaking to know that my friends, neighbors and co-workers still have zero voice in the Capitol and no one to vote for them – and for us – in Congress.

Consider that one of the world’s most diverse and educated cities has so often been bullied by extreme conservative leaders on Capitol Hill who – whenever possible – turn back the clock for D.C. citizens on voting rights, abortion rights, gun measures and our civil rights including LGBTQ equality. Not a single voter in D.C. has much, if any, say over any of those decisions.

The absence of statehood and the lack of real voting rights means that the unforgivable strains of racism and homophobia often held sway not just for Washington D.C., but in denying the United States a true progressive majority on Capitol Hill too. 

Virginians get it. In the past decade, we’ve worked very hard in every county and city in the commonwealth to turn our regressive political past into a bright blue political majority. We have elected LGBTQ candidates to state and local offices in unprecedented numbers. Our vote is our power.

More significantly, through the work of Equality Virginia and its many allies, we are repealing scores of anti-LGBTQ measures and reforming our statutes and constitution to secure equal rights as LGBTQ voters, adoptive parents, married couples, students, and citizens. Doesn’t Washington, D.C. deserve that future?

Virginia needs more states – like D.C. – to join forces and represent all Americans. To achieve this, and to defeat or neuter the anti-democratic Senate filibuster rule, we need our friends, allies and neighbors, the citizens of Washington, D.C. to share in our democratic ambitions.

Long ago, Washington, D.C. resident, abolitionist and civil rights leader, Frederick Douglass declared that “the District is the one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people, and by the people. Washington, D.C. residents pay taxes, just like residents of Nevada, California or any other state. Washington, D.C. residents have fought and died in every American war just like residents of Ohio, Kentucky or any other state. The District deserves statehood and Congress should act to grant it.” 

Speaking for LGBTQ Virginians, we agree. Conferring statehood is not a gift nor a blessing from the rest of us, but instead, it is the absolute right of all Americans to be part of our democratic society. As LGBTQ Americans, if we are to pass the Equality Act and other fundamental civil rights measures, we need the State of Washington, D.C. and its voters by our side.

Bob Witeck is a longtime LGBTQ civil rights advocate, entrepreneur, and Virginian, with long roots and longstanding ties to D.C.

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Opinion | Representation matters: The gayest Olympics yet

From one out athlete to more than 160 in just 33 years



OK, I really want a Tom Daley cardigan. The now gold-medal Olympian told Britain’s The Guardian that he took up crocheting during the pandemic. He even has an Instagram page dedicated to his knit creations, MadeWithLoveByTomDaley. It’s all very adorable; it’s all very Tom Daley. 

All that aside, you’d have to be practically heartless to not feel something when Tom Daley and his diving partner Matty Lee won the gold on Monday in the men’s synchronized 10-meter diving competition, placing just 1.23 points ahead of the Chinese. And then seeing him with tears in his eyes on the podium as “God Save the Queen” played. Later that week, he knitted a little bag featuring the Union Jack to hold and protect his medal. So very wholesome

Daley is certainly one of the highest profile LGBTQ athletes in these games. Besides the diver, the 2020 Summer Olympics, now in 2021 because of the pandemic, are hosting more than 160 out athletes. A record to be sure, but calling it a record does it somewhat of an injustice. The United States sent the first out athlete to the 1988 Summer Olympics, Robert Dover an equestrian rider competing in dressage. Dover remained the only out (sharing the title once in 1996 with Australian diver Craig Rogerson) for 10 years. Then, during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the number of out athletes jumped to 15. London’s 2012 Olympics saw the number increase to 23. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw the number jump to 68 out athletes. And now we’re at over 160. 

So you get the trend building here. From one out athlete to more than 160. So very far, so very fast. And competing in everything from handball to sailing to golf to skateboarding. Also, noteworthy, New Zealand sent the first trans athlete, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. These are but numbers and names, but to be sure, this sort of representation, this sort of visibility, is hugely important. Not just for athletes coming up behind them, but let’s think too of those out there, not yet even out, maybe watching in their parents’ living room. Seeing Tom Daley thank his husband, mention their son, this sort of queer normality being broadcast as if it is both groundbreaking and at the same time nothing at all — the importance of this cannot be overstated. 

On top of that, growing up gay, how many times were we all told, whether outright or simply implied, that sports were more or less off limits to us. Meant to display the peaks of gender and ability, sports were not meant for those who couldn’t fit neatly into that narrative. But it appears that that narrative is slowly becoming undone. Just look beyond the Olympics, to the wider world of sports. Earlier this summer, pro-football’s Carl Nassib came out.   

And maybe I’m just of a generation that marvels at the destruction of each and every boundary as they come down. We had so very little as far as representation back then. Now to see it all, and in so many different sports, you can’t help but to wonder what the future will hold for us; and it really delights the imagination, doesn’t it? 

It is the gayest Olympics yet. And if the trend laid out above continues, it will only get gayer as the years go on. And if it’s a barometer for anything, I think we will see a lot of things getting a bit gayer from now on.

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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Opinion | Blame Mayor Bowser for violence epidemic?

In a word, ‘no,’ as the problem is nationwide



The simple answer to the question “Does the Mayor get the blame for the violence epidemic?” is NO! This is not something that can be laid at any one person’s feet. The epidemic of gun violence is gripping the entire nation. 

The frustration and outrage I and everyone else feels are palpable. It’s frightening when you hear gunshots in your neighborhood. It makes bigger headlines when the shots fired are in neighborhoods not used to that like the recent shooting on 14th and Riggs, N.W. When the shots rang out patrons of upscale restaurants like Le Diplomate ran or ducked under their tables for cover. When shots were fired outside Nationals stadium the national media lit up to report it. The truth is we must have the same outrage every time shots are fired and people hurt or killed in any neighborhood of our city.  

Trying to lay the blame for this at the feet of the mayor, as some people on social media and in opinion and news columns in the Washington Post are doing is wrong. Some would have you believe the mayor is just sitting by and allowing the violence to happen. There are pleas “Mayor Bowser do something!” as if she could wave a magic wand and the shootings will stop. 

In a recent Washington Post column, “Bowser pressed to act after shootings,” a number of Council members are quoted including Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 2 member Brooke Pinto, Ward 4 member Janeese Lewis George, At-large member Anita Bonds and Ward 5 member Kenyan McDuffie. They all call for something to be done but not one of them says what they would do. It’s clear they are as frustrated and outraged as the rest of us but have no easy answers. What is clear is casting blame on the mayor and police commissioner won’t help to stop the violence and shootings. 

Again, this epidemic of violence isn’t just an issue for D.C. but a national epidemic. Recently our mayor sat beside the president at a White House meeting called to discuss what can be done about this with mayors and law enforcement officials from around the nation. No one from the president down had an answer that can make it stop right away. Many in D.C. would be surprised at the ranking of the 50 cities with the most violent crime per 100,000 residents showing D.C. with 977 violent crimes per 100,000 residents at number 27 behind cities like Rockford, Ill., Anchorage, Ala., and Milwaukee, Wisc. Crime in nearly all those cities and murder rates have gone up, in many cases dramatically, since the pandemic. 

The solution to ending gun violence is to get the guns out of the hands of those who are using them for crime but that is easy to say and much harder to do. We know ending poverty will make a difference. Giving every child a chance at a better education and ensuring real opportunities for every young person will make a difference. We must also hold people responsible for the serious crimes they commit and often courts are a system of revolving door justice where we find the same people arrested for a serious crime back on the street committing another one and the same gun used for multiple crimes.

There are anti-crime programs that might work but they need buy-in from the entire community including activists and the clergy who must work in concert with our political leadership. D.C. is funding a host of programs including ‘violence disrupters,’ job training, and  mental health and substance abuse programs. They all need more money and more support. 

In D.C., we have only 16 elected officials with real power; the Council, the mayor, the attorney general and our congressional representative. We have community leaders elected to local ANCs. When members of the council attack the mayor, some simply to make political hay for their own future election, it won’t solve any problems. 

This must be viewed as a crisis and our 16 elected leaders should sit down, agree to a series of anti-crime programs and efforts they will adequately fund, and stop attacking each other. Once they agree on the programs to fund they should bring together ANC members from across the city to a meeting at the convention center and work out a plan for what each can do to move us forward to safer neighborhoods. 

We must work together as one if we are to succeed in making life safer and better for all. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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