11/26/2011 04:30 pm ET

Small Business Saturday Event Draws Cameras, Officials To Ripped-Up Adams Morgan

WASHINGTON -- Federal and local District of Columbia officials smiled for the cameras on Saturday in support of an initiative to support small businesses around the nation and in D.C.'s Adams Morgan, a neighborhood roiled by both the soft economy and a massive street reconstruction project.

With a camera crew filming the event for an American Express small-business campaign, Marie Johns, a deputy administrator for the federal Small Business Administration, underscored the importance of small businesses as engines of job creation.

"When you are shopping at a local business, you are supporting your local economy," said Johns, a 2006 D.C. mayoral candidate and former Verizon Washington executive. "There are so many great businesses in Adams Morgan," a neighborhood known for its restaurants and bars along 18th Street NW and Columbia Road.

Saturday's noontime small-business rally featured free coffee and cider from Tryst, a fashion show from women's clothing and accessories retailer Violet and a showcase from home furnishings store Skynear, which has been an 18th Street mainstay for the past 25 years.

Compared to the "ridiculous" post-Thanksgiving Black Friday shopping orgy, Johns said that Small Business Saturday, being promoted in communities nationwide, is "a much more congenial event" that connects people to small businesses in their local area.

D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said Adams Morgan is part of a city that has more small businesses than any other.

"The backbone of Ward 1, the backbone of Adams Morgan is small business after small business," he said, urging those in the crowd to open up their wallets to support the community. "Spend as much money as you can today -- without going into debt. We don't want you to go into debt."

Although Adams Morgan has been known as a hub for small businesses in the nation's capital, many of the owners have been grumbling about the current state of neighborhood affairs, worsened by the massive streetscaping and utility-improvement project that has left much of 18th Street ripped up this year.

Earlier this month, Washington City Paper's Lydia DePillis detailed the neighborhood dysfunction:

Long-entrenched personality conflicts play a role in Adams Morgan, just as in any neighborhood. But much of the acrimony can be traced to a fundamental tension between two imagined futures. In one, Adams Morgan becomes a quiet, residential neighborhood with retail that serves the local community. In the other, it's a playground for tourists and out-of-towners who want some local color during the day and a bar crawl at night.

Neither of those poles is realistic or desirable. The question, then, is whether one can live with the other.

As DePillis noted, Adams Morgan faces differences over what kind of neighborhood it is:

The retail landscape has shifted irreversibly, after all, with online shopping providing stiff competition. One of the only proven strategies for helping local retail survive is to cluster similar businesses with each other, creating nodes like a "furniture district" on 14th Street. Residents might not like it, but Adams Morgan is "the stupid drunk district," and the bars, the most powerful interests in the neighborhood, don't really want to change that.

Despite the streetscaping project, restaurants and other businesses "are open and ready for your business," said Lisa Dupurier, president of Adams Morgan Main Street, a neighborhood business organization.

According to an American Express OPEN Independent Retail Index, a study of small business vitality, independent restaurants and bars in the District of Columbia retain "strong support" among customers, losing only 1 percent of the market -- 83 percent to 82 percent -- from 1990 to 2009. Independent retail, however, lost 18 percent of the market during the same period -- 73 percent to 55 percent.

The study notes that the D.C., New York, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia rank among the nation's top large cities with "vibrant" independent business environments.

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