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Want to start a business? Harold Pettigrew‘s your man. Now 32, he was promoted from chief of staff to director of the Department of Small and Local Business Development last year, making him one of the younger agency heads in D.C. government (but quite accomplished nonetheless). As part of Housing Complex’s series of sit-downs with new bosses, we checked in a couple weeks ago on changing perceptions, pot as a growth sector, and why he loves D.C. Brau.
Why’d you get this job?
I believe the administration may have been looking for some level of continuity. There’s been a good deal of shifting in the director role, and the years I’ve been here as chief of staff, I believe it offered some level of continuity and certainty about the leadership of the agency.
When you came in, how did you want to take it in a different direction?
We’ve had a changing landscape over the last couple years, and I think this agency, more than any other, requires us to be a bit flexible, and to be a bit agile in terms of how we focus, how we shape services.
Was it inflexible before?
Not at all, I just think that the vision of the agency came in the early 2000s, so that was a perspective about how services should be laid out, some of which have begun to change.
Everyone says the District is a terrible place to do business. Is that true?
Part of it is the perception gap between improvements that have been made, some of the buzz that we do see and conditions that may have been the case many years ago. You see it with transactional parts of government, and with our certification program—oftentimes, at forums, we may have people who said, it took me this long to get certified, and my first question is, when was the last time you were certified? And very often it’s been years, if not a decade or so, since their last engagement with the agency. When now we’re actually certifying faster than ever, and the experience is a lot more streamlined, how we leverage technology, policy changes that have been made. It’s a totally different experience from what small businesses may have experienced years ago.
Have you seen an uptick in the number of people applying for licenses?
For certification, yes, we’ve seen some growth, which came about over the last two or three years. We were averaging some 600, 700 companies that were part of our program. Two or three years ago, we saw that uptick, the moment in time when we put a lot of time into making changes to the process.
On the Certified Business Enterprise front, there’s been a lot of teeth gnashing over the fact that district agencies sometimes don’t hire as many small and local businesses as they’re supposed to. What are you doing about that?
We’ve actually already begun some of the improvement process. That was one of my first priorities coming into the agency last August, recognizing that this agency has really undergone a lot of change over the last couple of years. We worked for the first couple weeks and months while I was here to develop a process that tracks compliance wise what agencies are doing, to really give us more insight into what agencies are actually doing a great job. The last couple months, we’ve rolled it out, given introductions to agencies, did some announcements back in December about it, which also aligned with Councilmember Orange’s hearing. So part of it is telling a more complete story—we can make improvements, sure, but also celebrating the work that’s been done.
What are the in-demand CBE areas?
I think we have some growth in the sustainability areas. Part of the new system that we rolled out will actually tell us a lot more of that data. A year from now, I’ll have a lot more data about the procurement of the district government, to be able to know where we can focus energy, we can target recruitment for companies into the program, but I know that SustainableDC is going to be a huge one, that we can look to connect companies.
There was a philosophical debate over a grass cutting contract last year: Is it more important to have local businesses, or the one that can provide services at the cheapest rate?
I’m a planner by training, and so when you begin to look at the growth of a local economy, it’s a different discussion than simply the dollars associated. So when you’re talking about indirect or direct costs, or impact associated with investing in our companies based here, to me it’s a larger argument that’s consistent with why we invest in American companies on the country level. Because we believe that investing in American companies helps stimulate our economy. Same thing here in the District.
On the commercial corridor revitalization front: Does it make sense to limit the number of bars and restaurants in order to foster retail?
I think for any neighborhood, a careful balance is needed. You have to look at it corridor by corridor, but to strike a careful balance is where you really have healthy neighborhoods. I know that H Street is focused on bringing more retail, rather than restaurants or bars. We have a lot of great bars and restaurants, but we want to balance that with different offerings, so it attracts a different clientele to the neighborhood.
But how would you do that? Say on H Street—-how do you preserve that balance?
I think it’s the toolkit approach. I don’t think there’s any singular approach you want to take.
Are there more places in the city that could use Business Improvement Districts?
Potentially, but you know BIDs, going back to the toolbox, BIDs are one avenue by which you can help grow and sustain a neighborhood. Many neighborhoods are not ready for BIDs, they don’t have the density to really support a BID being active in their neighborhood. BIDs are based on self-assessments, and you don’t want to jack up the taxes so high that it then discourages or suppresses small businesses from growing and flourishing on the corridor. I think many neighborhoods are undergoing some major changes, and there may be some neighborhoods that are ripe for BIDs, but I don’t know that that’s the approach for all neighborhoods.
D.C.’s a federal government town, and there’s not always the incentive to get out of your comfy job and start your own business. What’s the best way to encourage that?
I would say that D.C..’s a business town that happens to have a lot of government represented. When you look at the type of businesses we do have, remember there are a lot of small businesses that do work with the federal government as well, and that’s a pathway that we’re exploring much more. We’ve had some announcements of exciting initiatives, taking advantage of the HUBZone, HUB DC, opportunities where we can expand our focus a bit. I think you have here in the city a bit of an excitement. You look at the bubbling that’s taken place with the tech community. It’s a great energy that’s been organic, that’s been wonderful to see really grow here. It hasn’t been government led; we’re here to support it.
We’ve been very focused on the export environment, to try to identify markets overseas. They need the brainpower, and the access to the professional services that we dominate in, quite frankly, because of the makeup of the city. So even exploring opportunities in the federal space as well as multijurisdictional entities.
You’re going to China with the Mayor as part of an effort to open that market for D.C. companies. What is China buying from us?
A good mix. When you look at China, sustainability is huge, so opportunities are available in green building, architecture that’s LEED-focused. Security. That’s a huge area of opportunity. Similar to South Africa—security’s a huge industry of opportunity. So when you look at folks that are here, it’s former secret service agents, and you put that expertise to use. But also, you look at training and education.
What are the biggest challenges to small businesses in D.C. today?
Our focus is in three areas. First, we talk about opportunities, and how we connect small businesses to opportunities locally, federally, and internationally. The second being navigation: How quickly and effectively a small business can navigate government, so they can get through to running their business. We want folks running their business, not being a pro or a specialist in how to interact with this agency or know word for word what codes are. The third being capital. For business to have a great idea, we want to make sure they’re connected with the capital they need to grow.
Every time a streetscape construction project starts, I hear yelling and screaming about how the District’s not doing enough to help the impacted businesses. Can’t we prepare better?
What we do know is the forecast of projects that are coming down the line, and what you have, particularly over the last couple months, there has been a focus to develop the tools necessary. We certainly can be there to help businesses plan for it, but capital is one of the issues that we heard. Mayor Gray, as Chairman Gray, was very supportive of putting that loan fund in place, and there’s been a lot of excitement around leveraging it. A number of companies have really jumped on it. More work can be done with coordinating with small businesses. There’s a shock, the lead time and understanding when these projects are coming down the line. DDOT does have resources committed to working with businesses as well, and to help the corridors prepare.
Should small businesses be afraid of Walmart?
I think there’s a number of ways to approach that conversation. One is, when you look at the District as a whole, we don’t have as much retail as we need. So there’s certainly the space for a Walmart to exist in the city. And then you have certain deserts that are east of the river where a Walmart cold help anchor greater activity. When you have areas like Ward 4, we’ve been focused on providing resources as well as getting the tools in place to help mitigate any impacts. Figuring out what complementary opportunities are available: Opportunities to source to Walmart, construction opportunities, that’s where we’ve been focused. We had a really successful pre-bid meetings a couple weeks back, where companies came out to hear the forecast what was coming down the line for contract opportunities. It was very well received. The developer Foulger Pratt as well as Walmart, laid out the pathway for companies to engage.
The medical marijuana sector is a small business growth area. What’s the potential for that?
It certainly won’t be a focus of our agency to try to help, because of the regulatory elements around it. I don’t see the growth potential there, on a tremendous basis, and quite frankly we have a host of other industries that are perhaps in more demand, or are ripe for greater growth here in the city. So we’re kind of focused there.
What’s your favorite local small business?
I’ll put it this way. There’s a wonderful local small business, D.C. Brau, showing that DC can have the diversity of businesses. Who would have thought that the District would have a brewery? Beverages and products are great, the excitement around it is great, certainly something that we could leverage in other ways.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.