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November 18, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

Joe Charlebois

In a free market economy, the consumer decides which businesses succeed and which don’t. It shouldn’t be for politicians or interest groups to decide who wins or loses in the marketplace.


The sole reason a business survives is that it meets the needs better than its competition while turning a profit. In Frederick those needs are met. In Washington D.C.’s 7th Ward, they aren’t.


Small businesses have always been at a disadvantage when competing against national chain stores, just based on economies of scale. However successful, small businesses have realized that there are niches that allow them to not only compete but become extremely successful in their local markets. Those businesses that haven’t adapted have been swallowed up.


November 26th is Small Business Saturday. This, of course, takes place one day after “Black Friday.” It is title sponsored by American Express as well as hundreds of business organizations and Chamber of Commerce groups throughout the United States. This is the second annual event to promote shopping at your own neighborhood main street businesses instead of the national Big Box stores.


In Frederick, we are blessed with many fantastic local businesses with excellent products and knowledgeable staff, as well as numerous independent restaurants with high quality food and service. As far as can be told, the independent businesses are doing well. The Frederick community prides itself in its patronage of downtown shops and restaurants. The monthly First Saturday, sponsored by the Downtown Frederick Partnership, produces an extraordinary number of locals and visitors.


Small businesses in a community such as ours give a local vitality and variety not seen in traditional suburban settings. Besides, Frederick’s historical context it is what makes Frederick an attractive place to visit and re-visit. When a city of 65,000 becomes a destination for hundreds from Australia, Canada, England, and Germany and still more from Malaysia, China, Israel, Japan, Korea and Singapore, it says something about the strength and appeal of a community.


We are a strong community with little in the way of empty storefronts. This is in spite of a flailing national economy. We are strong despite the fact that the state government continues to chase businesses away with punitive taxation and regulation.


In a community some 50 miles away – Washington, D.C.’s 7th Ward – there are plans for the penultimate opposite of small business to set up shop. WalMart is planning to anchor the Skyland Town Center with another store to be setup with in the city limits of Washington on the eastern side of the Anacostia River.


The environment in many of these neighborhoods can be best described as suffering. Unemployment rates have reached 19% overall and only 49% of those over the age of 16 are working. The average family income in dollars adjusted for inflation has dropped considerably from $58,619 in 1979 to $54,677 in 2010. The thousands of residents of the 7th Ward that are dependent on food stamps have risen 65% since 2000. *


There are, of course, many in Washington who oppose the intrusion of the behemoth from Arkansas for various reasons. Supporting local business doesn’t seem to register as one of them. Brenda K. Speaks, Ward 4 Advisory Neighborhood commissioner, says it would lead to temptation for young residents to steal and they would end up with criminal records. Really?


Washington, D.C. needs to redevelop. If the residents aren’t being served properly and Walmart can do so, it should. In this case there is a need not only for fresh produce, but for a local development that an anchor store like this would provide for the community. It will provide immediate jobs not only at the box store but in the neighboring small businesses that would complement Walmart as well as provide local shopping at Skyland Town Center.


* - Prepared by Neighborhood Info DC (revised September 7, 2011).


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