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Last week, Mayor Vince Gray announced the latest round of recipients of grants through the Great Streets Small Business Capital Improvement Program. The grants, which aim to boost businesses in emerging retail corridors by funding renovations and expansions, aren’t hard to come by. The 40 new winners include everything from a barbershop to a bookstore, and from an acupuncturist to a cookie bakery. There are two main criteria a business has to meet: It needs to have an eligible project in mind, and it needs to be on the right street.
But for at least one of the grant recipients announced last week, the latter requirement wasn’t met.
“Oliver Opticians LLC, an eye care center located at 331 H Street NE,” was among the 40 recipients listed in the mayor’s announcement, receiving a $42,500 grant for “build out, plumbing, electrical work, and signage.” The trouble is that Oliver Opticians LLC is not located at 331 H St. NE, and it never has been.
That location is occupied by Island Dyes, a head shop that sells products like bongs, dyed T-shirts, and “tobacco accessories,” according to Jim Galvagna, who owns the building and leases it to Island Dyes. Galvagna says he had talked to Oliver Opticians about renting the space, but Island Dyes moved in instead.
The city’s eligibility requirements for grant applicants on H Street—-where the grants began before expanding elsewhere—-state that the applicant must “retain site control of the property either through fee simple ownership or an executed contract or lease with the property owner.” Oliver Opticians had neither ownership nor a lease.
Reached by phone on Friday and again on Monday, Oliver Opticians’ Meron Taressa said she was too busy to talk. Oliver Opticians currently operates one store, in Alexandria, Va.
Chanda Washington, spokeswoman for the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, which administers the Great Streets program, says her office saw a copy of a lease for Oliver Opticians on H Street as part of the store’s application. The office is looking into the matter, she says.
The oversight is unlikely to cost the city any money, since the grant is issued not in advance but as a reimbursement for renovation expenses. Still, it raises questions about the administration of a program that has seen its share of problems.
My colleague Jessica Sidman reported last fall that “restaurant and social gathering place” DC Conscious Cafe had been awarded an $85,000 Great Streets grant in 2012, despite the fact that restaurants on H Street are ineligible. Moreover, bars are ineligible, but two businesses with tavern licenses—-Ivy and Coney and Pub and the People—-still received grants. (The eligibility requirements for Great Streets grants don’t define the term “bar,” and the owners of Ivy and Coney and Pub and the People argue that their businesses are restaurants as much as bars. Ivy and Coney co-owner Josh Saltzman says it’s simply easier to apply for a tavern license since it comes with fewer restrictions, and that he’s using his grant to build a kitchen and rooftop space, which serve more of a restaurant than a bar function.)
In the case of Oliver Opticians, DMPED should have been aware of the issue, since the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission sent a letter to DMPED grants manager LaToyia Hampton in March, advising her that 331 H St. NE had been leased to a different tenant. Washington says she has not seen that letter.
“To be honest, I’d much rather see the optical shop than a bong and T-shirt outfit,” says ANC commissioner Mark Eckenwiler in an email. “But that’s not the point; rather, it’s DMPED so flagrantly ignoring its own grant rules to make awards to applicants who, however well-meaning, clearly do not qualify. The fact that DMPED did that after ANC 6C flagged the issue in a letter two months ago raises a big red flag, to say the least.”
This post has been updated to include input from the owners of Ivy and Coney and Pub and the People.
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