The DC Council’s 1996 legislation that authorizes BIDs set up a process that requires establishment of boundaries for a proposed district and approval by affected property owners. Each building is taxed to support the BID’s operations and management, in addition to the usual property taxes.The resulting guaranteed funding offers a vast improvement for the BID over prior organizations that relied on membership dues. Capitol Hill BID’s primary commitment has been to a ‘Clean and Safe’ environment throughout the BID. Both interview participants agree that the successes of the BID have been many, and that hiring Patty Brosmer to head the BID, and her establishment of Ready Willing & Working, has taken the operation beyond what was originally envisioned.
This interview is part of a group of interviews initiated by Ken Jarboe in 2023 to document the establishment of the Capitol HIll BID in 2002.
Interview with Don Denton
Interview Date: July 25, 2023
Interviewer: Ken Jarboe
Transcriber: David MacKinnon
Editor: Bernadette McMahon
This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project.
Not to be reproduced without permission.
START OF INTERVIEW
Longtime ANC 6B Commissioner Ken Jarboe was an original member of the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District (BID) Steering Committee and an ex officio member of its Board of Directors. Ken’s interview of realtor Don Denton is informed by his own direct participation in the multi-year effort that led to the DC Council’s establishment of the BID in May, 2002.
JARBOE: My name is Ken Jarboe. It is July 25th. It is about a little after ten, in 2023. We are recording Don Denton about the Capitol Hill BID. We are recording in Don’s office [at Coldwell Banker Real Estate, 350 Seventh Street SE]. That’s the intro. The rest of the intro is to make sure you understand. You read the disclosure form. This is on the record. This will be a public document. This will be a little bit different than the normal Overbeck interviews because I’m going to do a little bit of a dialog to jog your memories and jog my memory. You and George Didden [former CEO of National Capital Bank, now deceased] are basically ground zero for the creation of the BID. I sent you that Voice of the Hill article.
DENTON: Yeah. It’s interesting.
JARBOE: Yeah, it jogs some memory of mine. Basically in 1996 when you were president of CHAMPS [Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals].
DENTON: I was president of CHAMPS was more like a—Steve [Cymrot] was the first president for two years which would have been ’83-’84, ’85 and I was president of the second set of two years. I was active in the CHAMPS all through that period.
JARBOE: When I went back and looked at some of the other interviews, I noticed that Linda Barnes mentioned that she had testified in favor of this when she was president of CHAMPS.
JARBOE: Do you know about what time that would be?
DENTON: It would have to have been in the late 1990s. When did Abe Pollin? That was the beginning of a lot of this when Abe Pollin [owner of DC’s basketball and hockey teams] moved downtown [by building an arena at Seventh and H Streets NW]. That’s when the Downtown BID got its impetus and that obviously is a big dog. It was the beacon for all of us.
JARBOE: It seems that there is kind of a two-step process. First the city had to create the underlying legislation to allow for BIDs.
JARBOE: You were involved in advocating for that?
JARBOE: That would have been, what, ’97?
DENTON: Yeah, ’96, ’97. You got to remember that with a little bit of history that really leads to this but’s really not relevant is this Capitol Hill’s business—there was no business district here as there was in downtown. It was a defined geographic area. We’re all over the place as you well know and at one point we had CHAMPS, we had the Barracks Row Association, we had the Market Row Association, we had MAMA and PAPA, Massachusetts Avenue Merchants Association and Pennsylvania Avenue Proprietors Association. Everybody trying to do something and nobody had any money. That overlaid on the frustration of the individual businesses. Take my block for example, the 600 block of Penn [Pennsylvania Avenue SE]. Weeds were way over knee high at all our tree boxes. McDonald’s was on the block for a long time. You could come in on a Monday morning and look down the street and it was unbelievable. It was left to the individual merchants like it had historically been, here and in Europe. You still see it in a lot of cultures where the merchants actually get outside in the morning and sweep their—well the problem was that in a block like ours there were probably four or five merchants that did anything. If I needed money for anything on the block, I’d go to Jack Mahoney [local real estate attorney and owner of Attorney’s Title], I’d go to Larry Quillian [real estate developer and owner of Mr. Henry’s]. I’d go to the Two Lions [antique store], Janet Crowder; Drs. Reed and Fissel [optometrists]. There were others. I don’t want to leave anybody out, but that was predominantly it, of people that actually put-up money and effort.
I remember going outside one day and the printer next door, crunchy old guy, we’re out there digging the weeds out of the tree boxes like four or five of us, and he’s looking out the window and he says, “What are you doing out there?” ‘We’re cleaning up your tree box.” “Thank you,” and shut the door and went back in. [Laughs.] That was pretty much a response. There was no support within the business community for trying to get these things done. There was no support from the government for getting it done. They picked up the trash pretty much, out of the trash receptacles, and that was it.
As you moved along, you’re looking for a solution, and none of us had the money to hire staff to go do this stuff. When the BID concept came into being it was like, wow, this makes a lot of sense. How you convince all these small shop owners to agree to increase their property taxes, basically. That was going to be the stumbling block. It had to happen in order for us to be where we are right now. I can go anywhere in this country. Our daughter is in New York City, around Columbus Circle between there and upper West Side and 71st Street, and we’re walking up the street on a Saturday morning. I didn’t see a piece of trash anywhere. I’ve mumbled, “There’s a BID at work here.” [Laughs.] And there was. Same thing in Nashville, Tennessee. You can tell almost by a line of demarcation where there’s a BID and where there’s not. It’s got to be self-taxed by everybody. You can’t just depend on an Abe Pollin because Capitol Hill doesn’t have any Abe Pollins. We’ve got some bigger dogs but nothing like that. So, we’ve all got to contribute to make it a better place for our businesses, for our families. That’s where we got to this point.
JARBOE: That’s a good description of what the BID does and where it came from. When did you first hear about a BID? From what I can tell, there was the underlying legislation. Then there was downtown that came out of the box right away once that legislation was passed with their own. Then it kind of died off for a couple of years. Or people were kind of holding back, waiting to see how it would work.
DENTON: I’m probably going to mis-speak his last name. Someone brought to my attention what was going on in Georgetown. To be honest with you, I don’t think it was a BID yet. It was a Georgetown Association, but they were talking about it. I think the guy’s name was Levy, but I may be wrong. I went over and sat and talked to him about what they were doing and then I hosted a small event. I know George was there and probably Jack and Steve Cymrot and a few others over in downstairs of Anton’s at Second and E [Streets SE] right there on the corner one evening just to have him talk to us. It was not long after that, that George really got involved. He was just wrapping up the Main Street Program on Barracks Row and all the construction that went on there. He was looking for another challenge and thank God he stepped up because he’s the one that finally put the muscle behind it and got it done. That would have been in ’98,’99 somewhere in there when we started to think this could get done.
JARBOE: So, Barracks Row Main Street predates the BID.
JARBOE: The whole streetscape that they did there predates the BID. But the BID could come in then and deal with maintenance and keeping it clean.
DENTON: On the Hill as a whole. The Barracks Row Main Street, they were at ground zero. Over time they started hiring our people to do like the pole baskets [hanging flower baskets on street light poles]. Those are things that is really tough; they’re expensive to do. It’s fairly expensive if you got to hire staff that’s going to be on board like year around. It’s a lot easier to contract those out. We would provide supplemental cleaning. It’s a step backwards and it’s all part of this.
There’s an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] someplace that says the city will continue to do what they had been doing. We would just be supplemental. Tell me the last time you saw—our trash people do a wonderful job in the neighborhoods. Tell me the last time you saw one, a truck going down Pennsylvania Avenue pulling those trash cans. It doesn’t happen. Same thing on Barracks Row. That’s all fallen on the Main Street programs and on the BID to get that done. To get a little more perspective, and you were here Ken, a lot of it’s tied to the economy and the real estate market, you could have bought that house on East Capitol Street for $350,000 in 1989. You couldn’t have gotten out whole until 2000. So, we slipped into a very dicey period of time. Crime was up. A lot of the things I’m hearing today, it’s like, “Oh, yeah.” And it’s serious, believe me. But here we go again. By 1994 we woke up to the Washington Post one morning with an article that wasn’t on the front page but it was in the editorial section, ‘The Hill in a Hand Basket’.
JARBOE: I remember that article.
DENTON: That was devastating. I picked up the phone and called Donny Graham who was the editor of the Post or the owner of the Post at that point. He said, “Yeah, yeah.” He said, “Is what she said true? Can you refute it?” I said, “No.” I know in my heart what I felt, but incidents at a time, what really pissed me off was here was a major publication who was theoretically in this with us. In this I mean this urban experiment, this urban renewal that’s bringing back what the cities have been, and to slam us like that was devastating. The rest of the 90s were pretty difficult for a lot of people. Many, many of our families who have fled to Virginia, Montgomery County or back home to Green Bay. A lot of brave souls that stayed here, raised their families here with all its challenges, but a lot left.
As we moved through those 90s nobody really knew where this was going. We had an ANC commissioner who out passing out fliers on a Saturday morning and some kids assaulted him with a knife. He got stuck. He bucked, headed out of here with his family. A lot of that was going on. This was not a foregone conclusion that Capitol Hill was going to be today what it is. It was very fragile. We needed to do something. We were all trying. The CHAMPS, the Barracks Row Association, the Restoration Society. Everybody was trying to do something, but it wasn’t getting a lot of traction. It was in spots, but wasn’t going where we wanted to.
Then when the concept of the BID came along and like I said George had just—he and Margot Kelly [early developer on Barracks Row] and Linda [Barnes, a former President of CHAMPS] had taken on this; making Barracks Row what it could be, because prior to that with the Barracks Row Association, which was a great group and Margot fought with that for years. It just didn’t have the muscle or the vision to do what needed to get done. If you went down Barracks Row for example in 1998 it was torn up. It was tough anyway to have a business over there. The street was a mess. It was like that for a long time, six months to a year. Then I remember driving down with the lights of the Navy Yard or something in my face, but looked up and all of these beautiful little trees were just starting to grow and the sidewalks were back where they should have been. It was like somebody flipped a switch. That was done, and as I said, George was looking for a bigger challenge and he’s the one who really took this on. He’s the one that had the gravitas to go to big players in our neighborhood like the Heritage Foundation and bigger property owners. He knew these people and he also had a reputation. They would take his calls. He made the calls. That’s when we started to move forward and hired Patty [Brosmer]. It’s important for history to understand where we were when we took the step. And where we were when we took a couple of steps before that.
CHAMPS started at a time when crime was a problem. It turned into a real problem. It was at Tunnicliff’s, because they had not yet been opened long and Drew [Scallan, real estate developer and then owner of Tunnicliff’s] hosted the meeting with reps from the city. He was obviously upset because he’d had two or three of his staff who would leave at two or three o’clock in the morning after shutting down and get mugged right here under the shed [at Eastern Market]. The farmer’s shed had no lights under it. The lights didn’t come under it until—I went to Harold Brazil, who was the lobbyist for Pepco at the time, and I had him come over and talk to me. We looked and the lights were there, but they just weren’t hooked up. It was a tough time and we were all trying to find answers to solutions. Our solution then was to create CHAMPS, which was fabulous because it gave all these disparate little commercial, geographic commercial tenants and owners a place to gather for collegiality if nothing else. That’s all we were about quite frankly for a long time, was to create collegiality among the merchants. One of our functions at National Capital [Bank], we’d have 200 people there. Ike Fulwood [Chief of Police] would be there. Another, Hampton Cross, the head of DCRA [DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs], would be there. People that these merchants had no shot at getting at when they had a problem. Now they’ve got a name and a face and they’d know who they are. It’s beyond this scope.
JARBOE: Then the BID was basically an outgrowth of that because CHAMPS realized that it couldn’t do—being the way it was set up and structured, it couldn’t do what a BID could do.
DENTON: Yes. There was no—I was vice-president for two years of CHAMPS. President for two years. Involved for 20 years. Funding was a constant problem. You’d hire a staff because we thought right in the beginning, if we’re going to do anything we got to have a staff. So, we had one person and four or five of us got together and paid for the staffer for the first year. Every year thereafter it got to be more and more of that staff’s time was just chasing membership money. $250 bucks a year wasn’t easy to collect. If we didn’t get that we couldn’t pay that staff person. I know that all the other smaller organizations always struggled with that. I’m on the Barracks Row Board, been for a long time, they’ve gotten a lot of grants. They worked hard and they’ve done a great job. Fundraising, that’s all you end up doing in a lot of cases. Just to try to survive.
JARBOE: This [the BID] was a more stable funding.
DENTON: Guaranteed funding.
JARBOE: You kind of knew what you needed to do, but this was the way to then operationalize it. This didn’t come out of the blue to you guys.
DENTON: No. That was the main driving force. Again, the other part of it was—our merchants up here, which are mostly smaller merchants, were they going to fight signing the petition to get to 51 percent or whatever we needed and pay? Say, “Yes, please charge me more. I already $15,000 a year in property tax and I don’t think I get my money’s worth out of that. Now you want be to do a little more.” It turned out not to be a problem. [More precisely, it’s the property owners in a BID who are taxed by DC, such taxes coming due separate from but simultaneous with property taxes. Tenants are included on the Board, but the property owners were the ones who had to sign the petition to establish the BID.]
JARBOE: Let’s talk a little bit about the process there. I know you had to get I think 51 percent of the value and 25 percent of the [number of] property owners, something like that. Who was involved in that? George was doing that from the top side, calling people and doing other things. I know I was looking at the boundaries because I remember spending many hours in the basement of [your] building over on Pennsylvania Avenue looking at—because you had a full set of plat books, and I could go through there. I also remember we set up a kind of a war room in that back area that’s kind of disconnected a little bit from the front that goes off of the parking lot.
DENTON: Up on the second floor?
JARBOE: Yeah. Do you remember that?
DENTON: Yep. I do. Let’s talk about the boundaries a little bit because that was a big deal. At that point in time, the area down around the ballpark—Ellen Wilson I believe was still there [Ellen Wilson public housing was redeveloped as mixed-income community in 1996]. Capper Carrollsburg [public housing redevelopment begun in 2001 and still in process] was still there. It looked like an industrial war zone down there. But things were happening. You could smell it. You could see it. NavSea [Naval Sea Systems Command] had just, I think at point in time somewhere around there had been transferred from Crystal City over to there and all the contractors had had to come with that sort of an entity. You look around, you wonder, should we like, bite that piece off right now and make it part of the Capitol Hill BID? I wanted to do it. But George was right. He said, “We’re going to have enough trouble getting the requisite number of signatures from owners and tenants and everything else in our areas. To try to get that, it’s going to be a bridge to far.” He was correct. It’s kind of funny to look at it now, to think if that were part of the Capitol Hill BID and this, how huge that would be. You were involved in that and we had to make some hard decisions and we decided to keep it basically a local, Capitol Hill BID.
JARBOE: Yeah. I remember doing, crunching the numbers for George, basically looking at the property values. We had some estimates of what it would cost to service x number of blocks. I know we ran the numbers for H Street and said, “Eh, that’s not going to work.” Ran the numbers for what is now Capitol Riverfront [460-acre southeast neighborhood between I-395 and the Anacostia River] and said, “That’s not going to work.” Then ran the numbers for just the area south of the freeway around Eighth Street, that four-block area. That was a little iffy. We could do it but, I remember Michael Stevens [President, Capitol Riverfront BID] being very adamant that they needed that as part of the Riverfront BID. I had a little fight with him, argument with him about that. In retrospect it’s actually good that they did that because they could handle that stuff better than we could.
DENTON: And they could focus on a smaller geographic area.
JARBOE: Right. More contiguous.
DENTON: Exactly. It all worked out for the good. Back in those days—I was having a discussion with my wife the other day as we were coming down North Capitol Street through NOMA [North of Massachusetts Avenue neighborhood] and I said, “One of the big mistakes they made over here is there is almost no green space.” Then the discussion went on, ‘Well, they knew what they were doing.” I said, “Yes they did.” There are friends of mine that basically created the identity that got NOMA going. At that point in time nobody—it was pure speculation. There was a bus station over there and a couple of other things. There was really—what are they thinking about spending that kind of money with no guarantee of return? Of course, they were looking at every dime that they could squeeze out of this thing to survive and make a profit, because that’s what they do. And you’re thinking, “Well it’s only four blocks from the Capitol. It’s a no-brainer.” It was no-brainer for a long time as was southeast.
JARBOE: It’s partly why the reason that Capitol Hill BID didn’t look to go up that way. It was the same situation as in southeast. The Wharf [SW]. H Street [NE]. They were kind of still iffy.
DENTON: Right. As you found out when you looked at it on H Street, there were a lot of small buildings. A lot of landlords. As lot of absentee landlords. That was going to be a slog to get that done. Even today—H Street looks fabulous. Obviously like a lot of neighborhoods in urban areas that, where there are issues too. Some of those big buildings are condos. We took the position, and most BIDs I believe do, they don’t charge residential condos dues. It’s still coming from the smaller commercial pieces which there are more now than there were in 2000. Still, it’s not like you look at those big buildings and you’re trying to do the math about how much you’re going to get to run an organization like the BID. It wasn’t going to be there. You had to fight with the egos over at the H Street [Community Development] Corporation or whatever it was. That wasn’t going to be an easy fight. This was hard enough just because it looks like a hollow amoeba with our boundaries running all different areas. They’re all small people. We’ve got a few bigger ones in there, but mostly smaller people. It all worked out for the best.
JARBOE: I remember there being a, I won’t say fight, but a heated discussion with Downtown and then the NOMA folks about where Union Station would be. That was one of those. We had to work out the arrangements there.
DENTON: Where the puzzle pieces would come together, who would have what. I think, and George was responsible for a lot of that too. His philosophy was do it right, stay in your own lane. This is a power grab anywhere. This is our primary responsibility.
JARBOE: As you say, it’s a continuous but not a compact set of boundaries because we go down Pennsylvania Avenue. We go down Mass[achusetts Avenue] a little bit. We go down a little bit of East Capitol to pick up those small businesses there. That was very deliberate if I remember correctly.
DENTON: Yes. We wanted to make sure we got anything that could—we didn’t jump spaces pretty much. If there were commercially zoned properties that were contiguous to the bigger streets, we tried to take them. It would reflect well on all of us if those businesses look as good as the ones around the corner. For example, we go down 11th Street [south of] Pennsylvania Avenue. I was down there the other day and I saw our bags out on the street next to the trash cans; they’d come through and dumped them and were just waiting for them to pick them up. I wish that we had been able to reach over to where the Safeway is for example.
JARBOE: Yeah. That was just a little bit …
DENTON: There wasn’t much there from a dollars and cents standpoint for us. It was a bigger area that had commercial or light industrial stuff going on that we would be responsible for and not make much money at it. Probably would have been a loss leader and the rest of us would have had to pay for that. That end of Pennsylvania Avenue was going to be difficult anyway because they are all small businesses.
JARBOE: Yeah. I do remember some behind the scenes discussion about that. I remember I was chair of the ANC and I said, “The only way you’re going to get the ANC support is to include everybody. You’ve got to go all the way down to Barney Circle in order to get our support. Again, that area, you’re right. That’s kind of a loss leader in that the buildings aren’t big enough. With the new developments around Potomac Avenue …
DENTON: It’s helpful. One of the bigger challenges was the loss leader financially, but that added another 40, 50, 60 properties where we had to get 50 percent of them to say, “Yes, come tax me.”
JARBOE: Right, right. I did remember reading something that one of the areas that George did want to go after was the [Federal Enclave], I guess it’s called. He called some folks including the commissioner for GSA who put him in touch with the Architect of the Capitol. There was lots of discussion back and forth about whether the BID should take over that responsibility or not. The decision was finally to say no, they’re going to handle, the Architect of the Capitol is going to handle the Capitol area.
DENTON: Yeah. There was never any appetite by the Architect to give up that. Again, a little recent history with all that. I can’t remember the exact timing on this, but it was a crime issue, a perception issue, the Capitol Police were now patrolling our streets pretty much up to Eighth Street, Sixth Street? Now we want to come in there and grab a few bucks from the Architect of the Capitol for the job that they think they knew better anyway. Whatever! Yeah, that didn’t go anywhere.
JARBOE: If I remember correctly then, the process of trying to get that, people to raise their hand, we did a—I was involved in doing most of it, a master scan of all the lots and squares that we thought were possible boundaries. I know I had Dale Lowery and Case Tech help with some software to analyze that stuff. Once we had that together and we had what we thought the boundaries would be, we needed to put in the plan. The plan if I remember correctly came around 2004, no 2001. We then had to send that plan out with the ballots to all these people. That’s why I remember the war room in the back. Do you remember who all was involved in that?
DENTON: I don’t and I’ll forget people. I’ve got to think, Susan Perry [BID Board member] had to have been involved in it. The people that were, I don’t want to say closest to George, but people that George relied on a lot and that he had on Barracks Row too. I think a lot of them. I think Bill Rouchell [owner of Maison Orleans Bed and Breakfast and former President of CHAMPS] was probably—at that point there was a lot phone calls. There was George making the calls. He calls the Heritage Foundation up and they don’t have to pay the taxes because their actual office is 501 [501(c)(3), nonprofit], whatever, and they’re not included. But they agreed to put up a voluntary contribution every year. He called, I think it was Louis Dreyfus that developed the building just, the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] building just east of Union Station. Along the way we had agreed we would cap the big buildings at $30,000 a year, or whatever. Part of that came out of wanting to have them as a part of this. They signed on.
Union Station again is not a signatory, but they contributed space for us, so everybody was trying—he could call and say, “Look, these people are doing this, we need you to do this.” He called the folks that owned 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, big building. Those were big plusses when you could get them to sign up because you’re now getting toward one of your 50 percent goals. Otherwise, it’s people like Susan [Perry] and Bill Rouchell and I’m sure leagues of others that would go door to door, especially if you’re on the 600 block you’d start knocking on your neighbor’s doors and a merchant trying to do it. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t a years long thing. It got done in a fairly efficient way.
JARBOE: Yeah. Letters went out to the owners as soon as the business plan was available in 2001, June of 2001. It was approved by the DC Council in May of 2002. That’s pretty quickly for it. I remember Susan telling me that she was involved in ‘catching the fish,’ as she put it. [Denton laughs.] She was a lobbyist and could catch the fish.
DENTON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. She wasn’t afraid to go through the door.
You got again to remember that we were still at a pretty tough situation in the Capitol Hill area. We were just coming out of it. Quite frankly we started coming out of it in ’95 when they appointed the Control Board, but none of us knew it, until 2000 when we sold the Tiptons’ house over here on East Capitol Street for a million bucks. It’s like, wow, that got everybody’s attention. The streets were still dirty. It didn’t look good. The more responsible merchants knew it. Absentee property owners, they figured out, well what do we care, we’re going to pass it on to our tenants anyway which they ended up doing. It wasn’t that big of a check to have somebody else pick up your trash everyday out in front of your office. Two things we talked about, clean and safe. All this other stuff, maybe. Clean and safe, clean and safe. All these years later that’s still, no matter what we do, those are the big things. Particularly clean. You got a trashy neighborhood and you’re going to get more crime problems and more issues. You’re really embarrassed to take your friends down the street when they come visit from somewhere else when your trash cans—go up and down Market Row on a Sunday night back before there was a BID, before there was a Market Row Main Street. Trash cans were full, and they stayed that way, sometimes for a day.
JARBOE: I remember Judy Wood [CPA business owner and later accountant for the BID] being very active with me trying to do the numbers, make sure we could do the numbers correctly. I know the City Council re-wrote the boundary language that I wrote, trying to describe this, you know, ‘To the mid-block of blub, blub, blub, blub.’ It was very, very technical. I’m glad the Council staff stepped in and corrected all our errors. Let’s move on to Patty [Brosmer]. Employee number one.
DENTON: Best thing that ever happened to the BID. She lives and breathes it.
DENTON: Even more than that, her vision in terms of—and you know this too. We initially hired our support staff, our street guys and women who went around cleaning everything, through an organization here in the city who was providing shelter for people that were basically homeless and unemployable. We hired those folks initially. It may have been during that period where they were bringing in—the Doe [Fund], it wasn’t them, it was somebody else. She was appalled, their living conditions. That gave seed to her trying to do sort of what the Doe Fund did in New York, creating Ready, Willing & Working [Ready, Willing and Able is a Doe Fund program]. That was her. That really was not in her job description. The social consciousness piece of any organization is important to its culture and how people perceive it. That has been a stalwart of what we’ve done almost from day one. Let’s say from day two. After she realized that there wasn’t a good opportunity out there for people who were down on their luck to really have decent housing and then to try to get them back on the one rung. The lowest rung on the ladder. To get back at Patty, that was the best hire we ever made. I’m just thankful every day that she’s still there after 20 years.
JARBOE: Yeah. It is amazing. When did you first meet Patty? When and how did you first meet Patty?
DENTON: I’m thinking it had to be through George. Probably in his conference room upstairs. It may have been during the time when we had brought her on at CHAMPS. I’m sure I met her there. That’s been a long time ago. [Laughs.]
JARBOE: Yeah. I can kind of remember that we were doing all this. We were getting stuff together and then—I did find a copy of the job description which was dated April 8, 2002, for the executive director, which is five, six months before we get approval from the DC Council. There was pretty much an optimistic—I assume by then we probably had close to the numbers, or over the numbers.
DENTON: Yep. I remember she’s being somewhere way prior to when we got the approval. She was being paid. Not a lot, I’m sure, but people were stepping up already. CHAMPS didn’t have the budget to pay her. It had to be coming from members. I think a lot of us put up money and were able to get her on board. So, when we really got the green light, she hit the ground running.
JARBOE: I remember her being introduced as a consultant who had been working on the Georgetown BID who would help us figure out how to set this stuff up.
DENTON: Yeah. I’ve said it three times now, I just can’t even imagine the BID being where it is today without that steady, constant, consistency in leadership through this whole time. We’ve had some great presidents, I guess now chairmen. That’s the consistent piece.
JARBOE: Right. I was going to just ask you an aside about that. I noticed at some point the titles went from president, George being president and Patty being executive director to George or Paul [Pascal] or somebody being chair and Patty being president.
DENTON: It was something, if I remember correctly, Patty wanted. It’s not her ego but relative to her dealings with other BIDs. That gave her more gravitas and that’s what makes sense to us. We didn’t really care. We cared, but I’m not the one that runs the BID. [Laughs.]
JARBOE: I think I remember it had something to do with being able, a little more entrée to funders by being president rather than executive director.
DENTON: Yup. Also, it created a little bit, it helped her create a bit of a structure for her moving down the ladder from director of this and director of that. Now she’s the president. It was on paper, but it was important.
JARBOE: I kind of remember it being, it was kind of one of those growing pains things that we had to do. Speaking of growing pains, we’ve gone through a lot of folks through Ready, Willing & Working. How would you assess their success rate?
DENTON: From what I can tell, it’s probably one of the most successful organizations of that nature in the country. We’ve brought people on, some of which have been with us for 20 years. They have really stepped up in assuming responsibility and are incredibly important members of the organization. I’m talking about the BID now, because we hired them. We’ve had a couple in there that things didn’t work out, but by and large—I got to tell you, I’ll be candid, I was really concerned about the public image of us having men in blue and women in blue on the street, pretty much all formerly incarcerated, formerly drug issues, unemployable for all practical purposes. I don’t think we’ve had one single incident that has reflected poorly on us.
The people who she’s—screenings probably not the right word, but yes, it is. Everybody didn’t just walk in and get hired. They’ve got to be able to see her perception, and Andrew [Lee; currently the BID’s Vice President of Operations] and the others it’s got to be that they will nominally do the job and stay clean and keep moving on up. That they could assimilate themselves easily into the culture that they’ve built, which is one of—you’ve got a lot of mentorship going, informal mentorship going on among that group. If you read, listen to some of the video that’s on their website and you listen to where some of these people were, where they’d gone and where they are now, from sleeping under an overpass in Georgetown, under an overpass in Georgetown, nowhere to go. Just like a lot of the folks we see down under the overpasses as you go down to the ballpark. Whenever they had the ability to pull themselves out of that, they just needed a chance. I’ve never seen any of the folks out here with an attitude. They’re out here sweeping trash in front. They’re grown people out here sweeping trash every day in front of all these other people and they’re happy doing their job. So many of them have moved into—she finds a stable place for them to live. There have been some incredible success stories there. To see someone who had been under an overpass a year before in their first apartment—the pride and feeling that gave them. Then to see them move on. One who left us after a while has started his own landscaping business.
We haven’t had too many that we’ve had to say, “You’ve got to go. You’re not going to make it.” They figure out a way to make it. A lot of it is the leadership in that level, that cadre of people who are taking responsibility for the other ones. It’s all the culture she helped build. I know we’ve had some people grouse over time about the money that—we don’t spend a lot, but Patty spends a lot of her time with Ready, Willing & Working. That’s an integral part of what we do even though they’re separate entities. We don’t give the them that much money. We give them time and opportunity. It’s been probably one of the single most important things that we’ve done, because I feel good at night knowing that we’ve got a lot of people out there that have got a place to go that didn’t.
JARBOE: It gives us a—I won’t say stable, but a useful workforce. A workforce that we can count upon, as opposed to guys just coming in and saying, “I’m going to work for the minimum wage for a year or so and then go.” We have folks who are invested in being part of the BID and are proud of being part of the BID. I just have to, a funny story. My first encounter with the men in blue. I sent an email to Patty and said, “Probably not the best first encounter.” [Denton laughs.] They were taking down political signs in the run-up to the election. They said, “Oh you know we were supposed to, we were told to take all these down.” They would take down the political signs. They’d take down the yard sale signs. They’d take down the lost dog signs, lost cat signs and I kind of gently said, “Patty I don’t think we want to have the BID being seen as pulling down campaign signs before the election, which is illegal first of all.” They then went to enforcing the regulations. Okay, you’d only have so many signs per block and we’ll tear down the ones that are illegal because they’re visual blight. The yard sale signs, the lost cat, you know, maybe a little discretion here.
DENTON: That’s leadership and it starts with the board.
JARBOE: Yeah. It worked fine. I did not hear any of the men in blue grumbling about that. Once they were told what the parameters are, they said, “Okay, yup, that’s good, that’s cool.”
DENTON: They were just doing their job. Doing what they were told to do.
JARBOE: I’m sure they did not, I’m sure they did not appreciate being hassled on the street when they started taking down campaign signs. [Denton laughs.]
DENTON: But they took it well.
JARBOE: But they took it well. But they were committed to their jobs and committed to doing it right.
DENTON: Yeah. I think that’s generally, all of them, that’s what they’ve been trained to do and be. We’ve got to the point now where if the general public sees a problem, for example the Metro Park [Eastern Market Metro Park]. It’s a nightmare situation where you’ve got three or four or five organizations responsible for cleaning that area. You get nobody. The first complaints come, “Why isn’t the BID doing it?” That’s what people have come to expect even though we’re still doing everything we always did. That’s not our total responsibility, but the point is that within the neighborhood they’ve got an image from—some young man over at the Fourth of July parade, a six- or seven-year-old, some of our people were throwing out balloons and stuff, and he said, “Oh it’s the cleaning man, it’s the cleaning man!” [Jarboe laughs.] These kids are growing up watching this. My kids grew up watching this. They get a sense of pride when the see BIDs no matter where they are because they know what they do.
JARBOE: To go back the Eastern Market Metro [Park]. So, you said earlier, somewhere there’s an MOU [from when the BID was established, that says that says the city will continue to provide services to the BID area]— I remember seeing that very clearly because I was on the ANC at the time, and we were trying to hold the city accountable for this. Yeah, we got an MOU; that [a piece of paper] is all we got. Same problem with the Metro [Park] as I remember. The fifth or sixth iteration of the plan that finally led to something occurring there, the current landscaping, streetscaping. But there was a discussion about who’s going to maintain it. Unfortunately, I think a lot of unspoken assumption was, “Oh well, the BID will do it.”
DENTON: Yes and no. We were concerned about that. Like down at the Potomac [Avenue] Metro, we put in a proposal what we would have to be paid to really step up that little hot spot. It never went anywhere.
Here [regarding Eastern Market Metro Park], we talked directly. We’ve had email traffic with, and I don’t remember the department or the department head, who was in these negotiations. He basically said, “It ain’t your problem Mister BID. We are taking care of that.” That never happened. [So], when last Spring things got to be in a very difficult situation, and we agreed for a year at least to step up what we were doing [regarding cleaning the Metro Park] until we could all come together a get this straightened out.
That public area is to me—I drive by usually a couple time a day or walk by it—phenomenal what’s happened over there [the Metro Park] in terms of usage. On this side [by the playground], there haven’t been [so] many people on it since they were building the Metro and it was a staging area. The little ones, the families, the moms, the dads, it’s just phenomenal to watch. But I think they made some mistakes there. I think the furniture, as lovely as it is, was a big mistake. I think that there’s urban design to benches and things that they should have paid more attention to, because what’s happened now is the same thing that it—the department gets slammed for making a comment like this. It’s become a place, a haven for not a lot, four or five, homeless people on a regular basis, especially during the night, and our people come through there in the morning early. The trash cans are turned upside down. It’s a mess. It’s expensive. I got our social conscience of what we’re supposed to do, I got it. Please understand it’s going to cost somebody.
An organization like the BID was not budgeted to be able to be the full keeper of a big site like that that is so popular anyway. Its success breeds a lot more effort. You got to come down there in the early morning. All the furniture that’s out there has got to be cleaned up, swept down, wiped down because you would be embarrassed to walk by it with your family the next morning, early in a lot of cases. We tried to get it cleaned before they show.
The reason that I got to that is people have come to expect that if it doesn’t look good the BID’s not doing its job because they’re used to us doing our job. The thing that the BID has got going on right now with the—and you’ve been a part of this—is the streetscapes and things we’re putting on the façade of vacant building to make them look at least decent. I’ve got a great photo of a little six-year-old girl, seven-year-old girl that took a little Capitol Hill resident standing right in front of that new one [a temporary façade on a vacant building]—she wanted to get a picture of her.
JARBOE: I think I’ve seen that. That raises a larger issue of the BID’s relationship with both the private entities, like Barracks Row and Market Row and CHAMPS and the city, the DPW [Department of Public Works] or whoever. DDOT [DC Department of Transportation] doing some of the streetscape stuff. How has that worked out? It could have been a real nightmare.
DENTON: It’s worked out pretty well. I haven’t heard any complaints in terms of our day-to-day functions. We do interact with DPW. We got to take our trash somewhere. I’ve heard no complaints about that relationship. DOT, we’ve worked with them.
For example, one of the big problems around the Hill, which is a nuisance problem at the uber level, but it’s a real problem every day. I was sitting over at Radici about a year ago and I looked out at the sidewalk right there and there are like six bricks almost up on their end. I said something to the owner, he says, “I can’t get the city to do anything about it.” Our big guys fixed it within 24 hours. Part of the reason that we were able to do that, you think that’s pretty easy, and it’s not extensive, but there’s special training that you got to go through to be able to [work] on the city sidewalks. So, the agreement was made that we would train a team.
The other piece was billing. How are you going to get paid back for what it takes to get this done? We came to an agreement where they allocate X number of dollars for a period of time and we just go out, and probably got approved hot spots, and we go out and we fix them, and we send the bill to DOT and at some point during that time, we stay under their limit, they reimburse us and the limit goes back up again. At least it’s like an emergency team that can work, that DOT can’t get to it as quickly as people would like it to and we can pay attention to it and get it done.
JARBOE: That’s imbedded in the kind of motto or mantra of Clean and Safe.
DENTON: Right. Exactly. Clean and Safe is a lot of things. For example, we power wash the hell out of the 400 block of Eighth Street [SE] and gum busters [a specialized power-wash machine specifically design to remove gum from sidewalks] and things like that. You don’t think about that when you tell about Clean and Safe, but yeah—I’ve got a property on the market right and the former, somebody who, the tenant that had been there before had left like three big bags of looks like construction trash in the back. I can get that out of there because I remember a number of years ago the Seven Eleven at Eighth and E [Streets SE] on that corner. Big wide corner. Somebody threw like a trash bag or two out there and it stayed there for a week. Within ten days to two weeks there were abandoned mattresses. It was unbelievable. Trash begets trash I guess is what I’m saying. Gum busters and dirt and all this sort of—if it doesn’t look like anybody cares, nobody else will care and it will just spiral downhill. That goes back to our putting the advertising on the streetscapes on these vacant buildings. If you make them look bad nobody cares and they’ll start making it look worse and that brings crime. It’s an endless cycle.
To answer your question, you know the police have been good to work with. Right now, the police are a challenge everywhere. It’s not them. They’re way understaffed and it’s the same problems they’re facing all over the country as a result of a number of things. They’re stretched so thin I’m amazed they get done what they get done. Our relationship with the police over the decades has been fabulous. 1D1 [First District substation 1] one was a big part of that. I’m not sure, I don’t think there are that many patrol officers coming out of 1D1 anymore. I believe they’re coming out of 1D which we fought against back in the 90s when we stopped them from closing 1D1. Now, should it be closed, that’s a whole different debate. And today the world’s changed. Again, they’ve been fabulous partners in all this.
We try to work with the non-government entities. Community Connections. We’ve got a great relationship with Community Connections [801 Pennsylvania Avenue SE] as does Barracks Row because they’ve got some resources that we use, we need when we have people that are problems on the street. That’s a whole different thing. What do you do with some of these chronic homelessness people that are here that have got issues?
JARBOE: Talking about the ties to the other community groups. If I remember correctly, that was going to be built into the BID environment and I noticed there are a number of ex-officio members of the board, me for example. From partner agencies, partner entities that was very deliberately put in place. Am I reading that correctly?
DENTON: Yeah, no you’re correct. It’s been like that from day one. It’s always been a discussion as to—we’ve got this steady flow of income dependable. We’re the only organization out there that does. We do Clean and Safe, now what are the responsibilities of the entities, Barracks Row, Market Row, CHAMPS—how is all this going to work together? Sometimes you’re well-intentioned. They can be ex-officio members and have a seat at the table, and that’s very necessary. But everyday life gets in the way. You got other stuff going on. I think right now, for a lot of reasons, some of it’s been the Barracks Row and Market Row have reached out. We’re providing more support now than we ever have. Some of it’s contractual. We do supplement the cleaning efforts on both Barracks Row and Seventh Street. But we’ve also stepped up now and we’re doing a lot more with social media, for example, in helping where they don’t have the resources to have somebody that pretty much does that full time. We’ve got somebody at this point in time who’s just excellent and does it with grace [McKenna Boyland]. I’ve heard consistently from the directors of both those Main Streets how appreciative they are of being able to rely on that resource. So, we’re trying to do more of that interactive stuff. We’re trying to, believe me, not get away from Clean and Safe particularly Clean, but we’re trying to expand our marketing efforts to be incorporating them more with the other entities that have got a stake in this game. Over the last year that’s really stepped up.
JARBOE: That’s been an evolution.
JARBOE: In the beginning, since we were small fry, I remember having to tell people, “No, this isn’t a funding source for x. This is Clean and Safe. They’re going to put people on the street who are going to serve as safety officers, ambassadors, and people on the street who are going to clean—and that’s it.”
DENTON: That’s our first responsibility. If there’s anything left over after that, there’s some things legislatively we can’t do, but there are other things that we can do more of like promoting the businesses. Our first priority is Clean and Safe. Whatever’s left after that we can spend doing other things. Fortunately, we’ve managed our funding well. We’ve built from—I remember that decade ago it was George or me. We had a few extra bucks at the end of the year, we need to put that in the contingency fund, and we need to build that fund in case we run into a pandemic. [Laughs.] Because you don’t know. If you go downtown right now and you look at the number of empty buildings, empty storefronts that are down there. You got BIDs behind all these things that depend on funding from these property owners. If their building’s empty—they’re all worried about it.
JARBOE: For my own professional work, I’m kind of keeping track of the impact that the “work from home” movement is having on business. That’s part of the new wave of the new economy. I haven’t heard anybody talking about the BIDs. I don’t think a lot of people, especially the property owners—they talk about the city taxes going down, the city revenue, but I don’t think anybody’s focused on what the impact is going to be on the BIDs and what a hole that will leave on its places. There was one other thing, besides Ready Willing & Working, Ready Willing and Able was the old Doe Fund, I think. [Denton agrees.] Yeah, the sponsored one. Besides that, which is kind of a unique part of our business model, we deliberately contract out [BID services] and have had a number of contracts for Clean and Safe with other entities. How did that come about?
DENTON: It was a revenue source. We basically—Patty and Andrew in particular—manage it without hiring an additional staff person to come in to do it. We get an income stream out of that which is a small percentage of what it costs to do it. The [other] BID’s got the money to pay for it. They just don’t have the staff. The laws allow us to go, to hire people to do the cleaning part of it. It all gets washed through us and we keep ten percent or something like that as an administrative cost. That money is, you know, sometimes it’s 50, 100 thousand dollars that goes to our bottom line at the end of the year. That helps buffer us against some tougher times.
JARBOE: Was that there from the start?
DENTON: Hmm [affirmative].
JARBOE: Okay. I kind of assume, looking at where the areas we aren’t going to include in the BID boundaries.
DENTON: It was obviously Patty’s ingenious that pushed us in that direction. Part of what she was trying to do was to create more jobs. All the [unintelligible] folks, I don’t know how it is now. We had the cleaning contract for the Southeast [riverfront, Capitol Riverfront BID] and the [Southwest] waterfront [SW BID] for time being. All the people in blue down there or green or whatever colors they wear, they were all out of Ready, Willing & Working. Lots of them were. I believe when we made the transition at least as we, in the beginnings of those transitions, they kept those folks online. So, there’s another group of people that she was able to get jobs for and homes for that have hopefully been moved on from there and they’re doing okay.
JARBOE: It was a way to expand staff without expanding staff.
DENTON: Correct. That’s correct.
JARBOE: Especially without expanding the administrative thing.
DENTON: Correct. That’s correct.
JARBOE: You didn’t need someone to manage that program separately from what they were already doing.
DENTON: No. No, we didn’t hire one single person to take care of those things. It worked well. Plus, it helped build relationships. Keeps these BIDs pretty much integrated. We’re very close to Michael Stevens and that’s very helpful, because we overlap. We’ve got similar problems. [Laughs.]
I guess the biggest problem that the BID has, probably the biggest problem that all of our merchants have and that’s the homeless issue on the streets. I’ve been involved in situations where they—our people handle themselves very well, but they could have very easily gotten, gone the wrong way. Or, interceding in more of our merchant’s places where somebody’s shoplifting. It’s a tinderbox. This part, the homeless piece of it is just extremely frustrating because we can’t do anything to help these folks except call the city’s hotline or whatever. The merchants don’t. That’s probably—if you talk to a lot of merchants, their number one problem is the homelessness and shoplifting. That’s what hits them every day. You just don’t know who’s going to walk through the door next, and your whole life’s going to get turned upside down. There doesn’t seem to be enough—I don’t know what people do—there doesn’t seem to be enough focus on getting some sort of solution to these. Maybe there’s no answer. But it not just here on Capitol Hill, it’s everywhere.
JARBOE: Right. That’s an ongoing problem. That exhausts my questions. Who else should we be talking to, should I be talking to?
DENTON: I know you’ve got Patty lined up.
JARBOE: I’m doing Patty tomorrow. I did Susan Perry already.
DENTON: There are several people that are familiar with the BID and have been involved with it from the beginning. They’re also involved in a lot of organizations like, Bob Schramm for example [well-known lobbyist]. Because he comes to meetings all the time; he’s not supposed to. But he’s got a different observation of what goes on than maybe I do. Drew Scallan [local real estate developer]. Some of those folks are still around. The problem with all these is many are dropping fast.
JARBOE: Well, yeah. That’s the impetus for doing this.
DENTON: For example, I know, I think Margot was included in the interviews that you guys have already done, but her perspective on Barracks Row, for example, and on Capitol Hill as a whole from the 70s is priceless, because they were there and it was a whole different world, a whole different world. But withing the organization, nobody really stands out. There’s so many people that have contributed and been parts of it. Then there’s so many of them that were there from a historic perspective that aren’t there anymore. I’m almost the only living president or chairman, whatever. The rest have gone.
JARBOE: Okay. There’s a couple of folks that I may try get a hold of and see whether we can do some. Bill Rouchell being one.
DENTON: Bill would be more than happy to chat. He was around there all the time. He was on the first group that we sent out to do a homeless census in the middle of the night. Susan.
JARBOE: I know he was also involved in where we did the visual conformation of the boundaries and the blocks. I remember putting together teams with lists and said, “Okay, you go do—walk down East Capitol to Fifth and Sixth and tell me if we’ve captured what looks like commercial buildings or counting residents there or, did we miss something that was a commercial use that we should have put?” So, we visually had people go and double check the status of each building.
DENTON: Which was a monumental job.
JARBOE: Which was a monumental job. I remember Bill being involved in that. Okay, great. Thank you so much.
DENTON: I’ve enjoyed it.
END OF INTERVIEW
Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project
Don Denton Interview, July 25, 2023