The Ward 4 Democrats held its November membership meeting Tuesday evening at Coolidge High School. The featured speaker was Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, Chairman of the Committee on Business & Economic Development. He spent about 45 minutes sharing about his proposed legislation called the PLACE Act, which aims to protect and strengthen legacy small businesses throughout the city.
An Underreported Risk
As the District continues to prosper, the pressures associated with that growth can impact certain populations in very acute ways. Most readers know about the strain that increased housing costs place on low- and moderate-income residents. But many people are not aware that local small businesses face similar challenges.
In his interactions with small business owners as the Chair of his committee, Mr. McDuffie has heard a lot about the difficulties that many business owners face. Rising property taxes and rents threaten the viability of many long-standing community institutions like salons, barber shops, florists and restaurants. CM McDuffie and his staff developed the PLACE Act (Protecting Local Area Commercial Enterprises Act of 2019 [B23-432]) to counteract some of these negative effects.
How Would This Work?
As currently structured, the Bill would aid legacy businesses in several ways. First, it would instruct the Department of Small and Local Business Development to develop a Legacy Business program to provide technical assistance. Mandatory workshops would include topics like “How to negotiate a lease”, “What is a triple-net lease” and other subjects that long-standing owners may not be familiar with. Secondly, it would offer stabilization grants directly to businesses. Finally, a program would be created to offer tax abatements to the owners of commercial buildings that house these entities.
A “legacy business” would be defined as one which has been in continuous operation in the District for at least ten years. The business owners would not have to be DC residents and the businesses would not have to be Certified Business Enterprises, which is a qualification that could be too burdensome for smaller mom-and-pop shops.
Funding for the program would come from the existing “DC Supply Schedule” fund, which is a fee that businesses pay into in order to do business with the city.
Questions and Answers
There were several business owners in the audience. CM McDuffie addressed a few of their concerns in a brief question and answer period.
One major concern is repetitive and burdensome paperwork. Doing business with the city or even simply attaining licensure often requires delivering reams of information, most of which the city should already know. Mr. McDuffie agreed and stated that he is working with several city agencies to streamline their documentation management systems. Another business owner is seeking grants make improvements to the facade and interior of her shop. He cited a list of potential sources of assistance, including the Great Streets and Main Streets programs, which offer grants of up to $50,000 for just that purpose.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Finally, as the meeting was concluding, Education Committee co-chair Rhonda Henderson asked what the Ward 4 Democrats could do to help get this bill signed into law. CM McDuffie expressed confidence in the prospects for the bill and asked for a formal statement or resolution in support of it. He also suggested that we reach out to his office with any thoughts, ideas or even models from other jurisdictions that might improve the bill. To that end, the Ward 4 Dems are considering forming a working group to address the needs of business owners and keep the lines of communication between the Wilson Building and the community open.
Overall, this was a productive meeting. It was good to see how a piece of legislation like this is developed and how citizens benefit when communication is a two-way street.
Mr. McDuffie also shared a piece of legal trivia that I certainly was not aware of; DC used to have a minority business enterprise program. That program was ruled unconstitutional in the early 1990s in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Can you guess which current Supreme Court Justice wrote a concurring opinion which agreed with that decision?
Highlight to reveal answer: Ruth Bader Ginsberg