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When Shaw activist Francesca Dixon went in search of funding for a design forum on the proposed convention center at Mount Vernon Square, she tapped many of the usual community resources. A handful of neighborhood community development groups and local retailers chipped in for the costs of the event, designed to give Shaw residents a chance to pitch in their two cents on the six-block building that will likely be built in their midst. Still, Dixon needed more funds.
For years, Dixon had heard rumors that the local Giant supermarket at 8th and O Streets NW donated a portion of the store’s profits to a neighborhood development fund. So she took her tin cup to Stephen Neal, Giant Food Inc.’s vice president for community development and a former manager at the Shaw store. Neal initially declined to make a donation, noting that Giant paid annual cash dividends to a neighborhood group known as the Greater Shaw Community Development Corporation (GSCDC).
Though Dixon was quite familiar with Shaw’s circus of politicos and nonprofits, the name did not ring a bell. Neal provided her with the names and addresses of the organization’s executives. Dixon says she had a letter hand-delivered to GSCDC President Milton Nicholas asking for additional funding. She received no response.
Giant eventually dug into its corporate account to make a $500 contribution, but Dixon never got a cent from GSCDC.
That was no surprise.
For nearly 20 years, Shaw activists like Dixon have been waiting for results from GSCDC’s partnership with Giant Food, which was designed to create jobs, fund programs for youth and senior citizens, and fill in other gaps left by city-run programs and private charities. GSCDC has received steady dividends from Giant and currently has just under $100,000 in its coffers. But nothing has happened. The group has nothing to show for its holdings and no apparent agenda for the future. Many of its directors don’t even live in Shaw.
In the 1970s, Shaw was a crumbling shell of a community. Rioting in the previous decade had torched blocks of residential real estate and destroyed the neighborhood’s commercial base. While Shaw leaders understood that a revival would take decades, they hoped a neighborhood supermarket would speed up the process. To buy the items on their grocery lists, area residents were forced either to patronize expensive corner markets or to trek more than a mile and a half to supermarkets in other neighborhoods.
In October 1979, a unique partnership brokered between Giant Food, the District Community Development Corporation (DCDC), and GSCDC brought warehouse pricing to the neighborhood. Along with cheaper eggs and milk, community types hoped the supermarket would bankroll a new engine for community development. Initially, GSCDCa small group of businessmen and neighborhood leaders that didn’t exist before the Giant agreementwas to receive a 10 percent share of the store’s profits. When DCDC dropped out of the partnership five years later, GSCDC’s share jumped to 15 percent.
As outlined in its articles of incorporation, GSCDC’s job was to stimulate economic development in Shaw. To that end, the group specifically stated that it would “plan and invest in land and property development projects, neighborhood planning, commercial development, [and] housing designed to improve the physical environment of the community.” In other words, just the sort of project that Dixon was planning.
Sixteen years after the riots and five years after the store’s opening, the Washington Post gushed over the enterprise’s success. A March 1, 1984, article on GSCDC’s first $15,000 dividend from Giant noted, “The check was placed in a certificate of deposit in the CDC’s name while community groups are asked for suggestions on how the money should be spent….The CDC has proposed 12 projects, including a loan guarantee fund and a job bank.” Giant officials announced that the store was their most profitable in the city. GSCDC President Nicholas told the Post, “When the store was built it was a sign of hope for our community….Because it has been so successful, it means so much more.”
According to Giant Food records, GSCDC has received $112,500 from its share in the supermarket since 1984. The company doled out dividends, in mostly $7,500 increments, to the group every year except 1986, 1987, and 1988. Giant officials explain that the store operated at a loss those years, despite the reports only two years earlier that touted the store’s exceptional business.
Activists salivate over what GSCDC’s rumored cache could furnish for the community: dozens of computers for area schools, a makeover for Kennedy Playground, and all kinds of economic development projects. So far, though, there’s no evidence of any progress. “I don’t know what the hell they’re doing with that money,” says Tom Briggs, the former president of the East Central Civic Association. Briggs tried in vain a few years ago to get GSCDC to contribute money to Shawfest, a community block party. “I was angry….All I wanted to hear was that GSCDC had donated to this group and done something with the money.”
“They were supposed to use the money from Giant for employment and to encourage and expand business opportunities in the Shaw area,” says Rodney Foxworth, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Shaw. “They haven’t done a thing.”
GSCDC board members counter that real community development isn’t possible with $7,500 per year. “The funds we have are not very good to do substantial work in the community,” insists Nicholas. “It’s not a lot of money,” adds GSCDC treasurer Norris Dodson, a local real estate agent. “The more we have, the greater potential we’ll have to make a positive impact on the community.”
Shaw activists, though, have heard decades of platitudes about potential. “All we want is answers,” says Foxworth. “If the CDC is supposed to be providing services to the community and they are not, then this is a problem.”
GSCDC has not stuffed all its money under the mattress, though. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the group made a series of loans to three entities, all of which are now defunct. Over five years, GSCDC paid out $20,500 to the Shaw Project Area Committee (Shaw PAC), of which $7,000 was never repaid. Shaw PAC was a federally funded citizen participation program put in place in areas of urban renewal. “A couple of times they needed help meeting their payroll,” Dodson explains.
The Shaw Coalition Redevelopment Corporation got a check for $6,000 in 1986, which was also never repaid. Ditto for a 1986 $11,000 loan to Shabazz Dry Cleaners, described as a “Shaw business” even though it used the money to move into the Frank Reeves Municipal Building at 14th and U Streets NW, well beyond Shaw’s boundaries. The business went under a few years later.
“We spent quite a while trying to find Mr. Shabazz,” reports Dodson. “Early on, the CDC was more active in terms of making loans,” he adds. “Now most members have adopted a much more conservative approach.” Aside from the loans, the group has distributed $1,675, largely for seniors’ Christmas parties and a handful of other community events. “We hand out food at the holidays,” Nicholas notes.
What they term conservative, others might characterize as asleep at the wheel. In 1993, Shaw resident James Smith discovered that GSCDC had not filed the annual reports required of a registered nonprofit for the previous eight years. In effect, the group had been decertified in the District, even though it continued to receive Giant dividends. Smith helped the organization get up to date.
It did, except for one detail: The registered agent listed for GSCDC remained Thomas Lodge, a former board member who had resigned from the group a few years previously. Many of the board members listed on the organization’s most recent incorporation papers live outside of Shaw. Nicholas, the board’s president and current registered agent, also does not live in the neighborhood. When asked to name the members of the group’s board, Nicholas stumbled. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I think we have seven.”
Shaw community members say that the group does not advertise its meeting times and keeps neighborhood activists from joining its organization.
The clandestine operations leave little opportunity for neighborhood do-gooders to take advantage of the organization’s precious funds. “Some projects and proposals have come before the board,” reports Dodson. “Not one has gotten a majority vote.”
GSCDC is an enigma to anyone involved in community development. “It’s pretty rare for a CDC to be sitting around just watching the money roll inusually they’re scrambling for it,” observes Avis Vidal, a research associate with the Urban Institute who studies community development. “If the community is calling them to task, they have two options: one, to become active, perhaps by rebuilding their board; or two, say ‘We’ve played our role,’ declare victory, and get out.”
Giant Food officials distance themselves from the controversy. “Our job is to manage the store,” says Neal. “We don’t keep track of what happens to the dividends.”CP