Convention center planners promised they would bring money and jobs to Shaw residents. So far, they’ve produced a large hole in the ground.
Douglas Brooks has learned to be patient. He waited to get out of prison for six years. He waited in a halfway house after that, hoping to find work. Next, he moved into his brother’s house in Shaw, where he’s waiting to find a full-time job. In the meantime, he’s worked temporary stints cleaning office buildings.
Right now, Brooks waits outside a classroom on the second floor of a community center near Shaw’s Vermont Avenue Baptist Church. For the past week, Brooks and 30 other D.C. residents have been taking part in a “personal responsibility” class as part of the Shaw Comprehensive Job Training Academy, a program funded by the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA).
Looking to deflect criticism that the new convention center would be nothing but a handout to District fat cats, WCCA boosters promised in 1997 to set up programs to make sure Shaw residents like Brooks would benefit from having the city’s biggest building erected atop their neighborhood. In June, WCCA signed a $900,000 contract with the Silver Spring-based NOAH Group to create the job-training program.
So far, Brooks has slogged through the program’s first steps. In fact, he’s slogged through many first steps. Since he signed up in mid-September, he’s attended the orientation and filled out the nine-page application. He’s also been through the “career and basic skills” assessment, as well as an individual interview with a social worker. Lately, he’s been in class—where he’s learned to fill out more forms and to express himself more clearly.
Par for the course when it comes to training D.C.’s least employable workers, right? Maybe not. After all, it was nearly a year after the convention center’s gala groundbreaking last fall that Brooks heard his first job-training lecture, about the importance of punctuality. And Brooks still isn’t sure when he’ll actually start working. He hopes to get a job in construction, but that job depends on how the rest of the training goes. Like his classmates, he should be placed in a position in the next one to two months, says Luella Johnson, the academy’s “self-sufficiency specialist.”
“You have to be patient,” says Brooks.
Brooks is more understanding than many Shaw residents. Despite claims that the training project would bring jobs, residents claim they’ve seen few neighbors actually getting a paycheck in the year of excavating, cleaning, and jackhammering that has followed the groundbreaking. They’re not so sure what’s going to come from the type of training Brooks is undergoing. And they’ve grown weary of waiting.
NOAH CEO Charlie Baumgardner says the academy has had a slower start-up than expected. So far, he says, it’s placed 20 participants in jobs, nine of them Shaw residents. He says 121 people have completed the orientation phase; 54 of them are from Shaw.
Baumgardner, who runs the academy in partnership with the nonprofit Peoples Involvement Corp. (PIC) and a for-profit community relations company called Toni Thomas Associates Inc., says the group had to spend some start-up time building partnerships with job-placement and other groups so that academy grads would have jobs to go to when they completed training.
But Shaw residents say they see a giant job opportunity right down the road—in the form of the two-block-by-three-block behemoth project funding all this talk of training. “If you’ve already had one year and you’ve not gotten these people in there and trained them, it will take another year,” says Lillian A. Gordon, a Shawite who was part of a consensus group that worked with the job academy. “[The convention center] will be completed before they all have jobs….With the time that’s left, we just can’t see it working out.”
It’s about 6:30 on a Wednesday evening, and the community room next to the Shiloh Baptist Church, at the corner of 9th and P Streets NW, is nearly filled with people. Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans has convened the meeting as part of his monthly assemblies of the Shaw/Northwest One Crime Task Force—a group he created to strategize about neighborhood safety. But tonight, most of the people have come to talk about jobs. Or, rather, why there aren’t any.
Evans says he shifted the meeting’s focus after receiving a flood of calls regarding the whereabouts of that job-training program Shaw heard so much about during the contentious debate over building the new convention center. It had a way of getting mentioned just about every time a bunch of suits argued that the center would be a boon for everybody, including Shaw residents.
About 50 people sit in cushy chairs around a handful of tables covered with job-training brochures and fliers from Evans’ office. Of course, many of the people in the room aren’t here because they’re Shaw residents. Lewis H. Dawley III, WCCA general manager and CEO, and his entourage occupy almost an entire table. Department of Employment Services Director Gregory P. Irish and his staff take up most of another. There are also representatives from the NOAH Group and its subcontractors, and the people who now run the job-training academy. The regular old Shaw citizens sit in the back.
And they sit. And they sit. And they sit some more, through two hours of speeches and introductions. Baumgardner takes the podium at least an hour into the meeting. As he starts what will prove to be a lengthy PowerPoint display on the progress of the Shaw academy, the guy next to me, Shaw resident Thomas Allen, who’s been shifting uncomfortably for some time, finally gets up in a huff. “I thought this was going to be a community forum,” he says as he heads out the door.
Even some of the supporters can’t manage to make it until the bitter end. When Joyce Robinson-Paul, a Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner who now heads the job academy, finishes her speech, she points to the back of the room, where she says a couple of the job-training participants are sitting. “They’ve come to give their support and say they appreciate the [WCCA] for bringing this program to them,” she says. Only one guy jumps up, grinning not quite widely enough to distract from the half-dozen or so empty chairs around him. “Some of them have already left,” says Robinson-Paul.
Angry neighbors say that the bunch of empty chairs is all too fitting a symbol. The WCCA employs 161 workers, of whom nine come from Shaw. Another 155 employees are building the new center, 14 of them Shawites, according to WCCA spokesperson Tony Robinson.
And Robinson says that the 14 Shaw residents who are working on the new center are union members and have likely worked on construction jobs in the past—meaning they don’t come from the oft-cited pool of unemployed in Shaw. WCCA heads have plans for a “pre-apprenticeship program” that would put more local residents to work on building the new center, says Robinson, but they’ve run into complications with local unions, which currently require all convention center construction workers to be members. He adds that WCCA authorities will put more Shaw and other D.C. residents to work on the construction after they go through the proper training. “There are no painters, because there’s nothing to paint,” says Robinson. “We’re training people now so that when we get to those phases of the job, we’ll have them ready.”
Norma Davis, a Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner, isn’t interested in WCCA’s big plans for the future. “I look at these numbers, and they’re just numbers,” she says, after watching Baumgardner’s presentation. “You show me people. You show me people who are working. I’m not going to live through that again, like we did with MCI.”
Memories of the MCI Center construction, of course, hang over every conversation about promises of jobs. Though D.C.’s pro-development lobby had promised that the arena would bring benefits for poorer neighbors, Shaw residents were stiffed when it came to filling the project’s 2,000 jobs. Fewer than half of the construction jobs went to D.C. residents, according to a Washington City Paper story (“Hoop Dreams,” 12/5/97). By the time arena developers had filled most of the jobs, at the end of 1997, only 142 Shaw residents were working at the MCI Center, most in part-time jobs that paid $6.75 to $9 an hour, according to a Washington Post report.
Baumgardner, a rosy-faced guy with a collar that looks too tight for him, says his group just needs more time. NOAH signed its contract with the WCCA in late June, not even four months ago. It took the organization several weeks to hire staff, create partnerships with local businesses, and get furniture for the recruiting office. “In setting up any program, you have to set up an infrastructure,” he says.
But Davis isn’t really in the mood to grant an extension. “We have fought long and hard for this,” she says. “And it has taken an astronomical time. So when you talk about four months…You had your proposal in. You knew the guidelines. You should have been ready to go.”
Davis and other Shaw residents say the group and its subsidiaries have not lived up to promises to maintain a focus on their neighborhood and partner with Shaw-based groups. The academy’s recruiting office, for example, is in the PIC building on Georgia Avenue, which is located outside of Shaw. So far, the academy has partnered with only one Shaw-based group: the Lawrence L. Thomas Multi-Service Center—a job-training program opened this summer by Thomas, a Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner who was a local convention center supporter frequently cited by its corporate boosters during last year’s debate.
Baumgardner says the academy has signed a lease with Thomas and plans to open an “18-seat learning center” on the second floor of the building in December. In the meantime, negotiations with two other Shaw groups, the United Planning Organization and the Organization for Training Others in Need, have stalled.
Even Evans—who carried water for the project as it made its way through the council—has been waxing impatient. He says he crashed a WCCA board meeting early this year, just to get the attention of board members who wanted to ignore the job-training notion. “It was like the homework no one wanted to do,” says Evans.
Dawley agrees that they need help. “The convention center authority is not a job-training group of professionals,” he says. “We’re struggling to get this convention center built and operating.”
Dawley adds that the protracted start-up is all part of an effort to create a system that will remain long after the dust from the convention center construction has cleared. The academy gives preference to Shaw residents, adds Dawley, but the program is intended to be a long-term resource for all District residents. “I’ve heard some people say this isn’t moving fast enough,” says Dawley. “I think we’ve stumbled at times. But we’re on the fast track. It took a long time for us to get that project in the ground. Let’s create job training and then find jobs for these folks.”
Shaw residents say they see plenty of jobs. Now they want to see paychecks in the hands of their neighbors. “The convention center is going to be built by 2003,” says Davis. “We want a piece of that cake that’s in that ground now, right down the street.” CP