Thursday, September 28, 2006

Tom Knott comments on Advisory Neighborhood Commissions

All too many denizens of the city instinctively rail against corporate America as an article of their political faith but inevitably undermine the entrepreneurial spirit of the mom-and-pop tavern operators in their neighborhoods.
This disconnect is played out in various areas of the city, initiated by civic association groups and the elected officials of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Their hubris is surpassed only by their thorough misunderstanding of the marketplace.
Most know no more about the challenges of running a small business than they do about building a car engine from scrap.
Yet their lack of business acumen does not dissuade them from passing along their so-called expertise. It does not stop them from implementing obstacles, whether through moratoriums on liquor licenses, not granting license renewals, urging the owners of restaurants and bars to close their establishments earlier than necessary or even lodging protests with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration.
A common complaint of protesters is the noise emanating from a particular establishment in the wee hours. This complaint would prompt laughter all around if the sober-minded did not treat it with the utmost seriousness and put the small business on notice.
As you hear these sleep-deprivation tales of woe, you want to ask: "What made you think that moving behind a commercial strip was an idyllic idea?" The chain restaurants -- TGIF and the like -- have the deep pockets to play this exhaustive game with the NIMBYs of the city. They have their corporate lawyers and public relations sorts. They have the time and expertise to sift through the choking bureaucracy.
The small-business owner has no such support system at his disposal. The person already is working long hours and doing everything possible to increase a slim profit/margin line. The civic association groups and ANC members do not have the faintest notion of what it takes the small-business owners to survive.
These groups do not know that a small-business owner may be paying as much as $8,000 a month to lease a building in a good part of town. They do not know about the problem of "spillage" and a portion of the goods going through one door and out another. They have not heard the lament of one longtime restaurant/bar owner in the city. To the question of what erodes the profit/margin line, he said, "Salt and pepper shakers." It seems many of his patrons saw the items as parting gifts, just another variation of the industry's old refrain: "It fell off the truck."
ANC commissioners and community activists sometimes say, "That is not the kind of business we want to attract to our neighborhood." These well-meaning types apparently think that if they pine hard enough for a shoe store or an upscale boutique to take up residence in an empty storefront, then one day it magically will happen.
That is not how the marketplace works, as city lawmakers know only too well. They have all but handed the combination to the city safe on occasion to lure this or that big-box retailer to an up-and-coming neighborhood.
The riddle of urban life reveals a surprising scene along H Street Northeast, the target of yet another redevelopment plan. Several nighttime hot spots have emerged amid the series of boarded-up storefronts, no doubt with the encouragement of the city and neighborhood.
These eclectic places, one of which features magic acts, would draw a sniff and a huff from many of the do-gooders in Northwest. That sort of entertainment fare never would be considered by a prospective owner, as it would require the person to go before the ANC to petition for a substantial change to the license.
It is preferable to buy an existing business, stealthlike, and leave the imagination to those owners in more receptive neighborhoods.
The last thing any small-business operator wants in this city is a mandatory date with the ANC and community activists who purport to know what is best for a community's commercial strip.

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