City Desk

Businesses in Congress Heights Prepare for ‘New Money’

The federal Department of Homeland Security typically conjures up images of airport screening, border guards, hurricane damage, or terrorist attacks. A group of business owners and local activists in Congress Heights, though, are hoping the arrival of the department's offices will help the neighborhood become the District's next Barracks Row or Adams Morgan.

Through the Congress Heights Main Streets project, founded two years ago, they're trying to bring new investment to the community, in Ward 8. DHS will move its headquarters there from Tenleytown within a few years, and the neighborhood is trying to capitalize on the construction and the estimated 14,000 jobs that will arrive with the department. The area needs it badly; the average unemployment rate in Ward 8, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, was 26.5 percent.

The Congress Heights Main Streets project, which extends from Fourth St. Southeast to Milwaukee Pl. Southeast, wants to create a cleaner and safer environments around the 58 businesses in that community.

“As you know when you ride around the city there are different neighborhoods that looked bad and now they look good,” says James Bunn, chairman of the Congress Heights Main Streets project. “Our intention is to have a corridor that looks like Barracks Row.”

Bunn, who is a Ward 8 resident and chairman of the ward's business council, has owned the Bunn Building at 3127 Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave SE since 1970. He and other Congress Heights Main Streets organizers say they want to create a cleaner, and safer, neighborhood for the 58 businesses in the area now. They hope that, in turn, will mean in more restauranteurs and other businesses move in.

So far, Bunn says three or four businesses in the neighborhood have already been renovated by business owners. The D.C. Council's Committee on Economic Development, which is chaired by At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown (the all-but-certain next council chairman), allocated $150,000 to the Congress Heights Main Streets project in May of this year, to try to help those efforts. Brown says it's a “shame” revitalization efforts were not organized earlier in Congress Heights: “It's time to get the improvements in town that we get downtown.”

During a press conference on Friday, in front of a Chinese food carry-out called Hong Kong, Bunn advised business owners in the neighborhood not to sell their property "for a few bucks." Within 12 to 18 months, he says, the construction of the Department of Homeland Security building will raise property values for business owners and residents. "We want them to be a part of the new money that is coming," Bunn says.

The take-out place's entrance was recently renovated by Chosen Contractors, a company owned by Tinamarie Spencer, who grew up in Congress Heights and graduated from Ballou Senior High School. Spencer says she went for an “Adams Morgan feel” for the re-design of the storefront to bring sophistication to Congress Heights. She says she's excited by the opportunity to “give something back to her community.”

“[Residents are] so used to having everything run down or having second hand work,” she says. “So I wanted to give them something that they deserve.”

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  • Scam Alert!

    Isn't this the same James Bunn that was caught up in the Marion Barry earmark scandal? Wasn't he the one who notarized those fictitious signatures on those bogus contracts? Why was that not mentioned in this article?

    The real story here isn't the new pot of money that CHMS just recieved or "revitalization efforts" currently underway (although one would have to ask as head of the Ward 8 Business Council since forever what has James Bunn been doing?). The real story here is what happened to the last $150,000 that James Bunn and his cronies recieved less than a year ago from the city? The Executive Director at that time quit under rumors there was an investigation pending into what happened to that moeny. Guess what -- the money is gone and it did not revitialize anything but someone's own self interest. This is the biggest open secret in Ward 8 and it should be investigated. Commentors on WCP have been talking about the CHMS scam since before the Barry scandal broke. Nothing happened with that original $150k other than it went into James Bunn's pocket, Jame's Bunn's friend's pockets, and the James Bunn building.

    Both CHMS and the Ward 8 Business Council were run out of the same office, headed by the same person (Bunn), until the power was shut off right along with the phones, website, etc.

    If you can show me one legitimate business in Congress Heights that was renovated properly (and affordably) with any of those tax dollars I will eat my hat.

    And the scam continues. Nothing is going to happen with this money other than it is going to be wasted. A couple of tacky banners on MLK is not going to upgrade the neighborhood.

    It's not what you know, it's who you know.

  • Quamanikkia

    You all can't possibly think that the even 1 of 14000 jobs coming with the DHS is going to be a boon to a neighborhood where practically half of the adults didn't graduate from high school or can't read.

    I am all for revitalizing Ward 8, but until DC begins to tak a bold look at why Ward 8 has remained poor, crime ridden, broke, and illiterate, NOTHING is going to change. Will DHS be training some of the people living in the area for some entry level jobs?

    Will DHS relax the background check requirements so that people with minor or non-violent criminal histories can get a job?

  • IMGoph

    i hate to be a downer for all the people in congress heights, barry farm, and anacostia who think that having a super secure, militarized base dropped into the middle of the neighborhood is going to do great things for their local businesses.

    the problem is that it almost certainly won't.

    have them visit the suitland federal center, and see what happens when you have thousands of federal employees behind a high fence, multiple checkpoints, and they've all been told that the surrounding neighborhoods aren't the safest in the world. you end up with employees who eat in the cafeteria.

    DHS employees will have an exit right off of 295, so they can drive in from their homes in nova, park in the garage, work at their desk, and then right back home via the freeways at the end of the day.

    the neighborhoods of ward 8 need denser residential development in order to support businesses. they don't need to rely on the equivalent of a white-collar prison to make things change for the better. it'll only lead to disappointment.

  • Sally

    Totally agree with IMGoph. Anyone who thinks DHS will lead to revitalization of East O' the River is nuts. How much revitalization has the Navy Yard done to SE? What about the Marine Barracks? Or the Armed Forces home? Or Bolling Air Force base?

    Maybe some local residents will get temporary construction jobs for a while - assuming they regularly show up, can pass a drug test, and don't get fired. But when you're dealing with a sizeable population that's functionally illiterate, that has criminal backgrounds, or that can't pass a background check, expecting DHS to be the community's jobs savior is absolutely a bad idea.


    Let's not get too far gone on the negative thinking and maybe add a little critical thinking. I understand where you both are coming from but why stop at the stop sign, let's figure some alternatives. One, the presumtive new Mayor has already said that he was considering some job training for those who need it. Second and one step further, community schooling and colledge for those who don't have adequate credentials and want them, we need to educate the kids sure , but we have all these adults that need it too, let's not let them fall by the wayside, that actually helps the situation with the kids. Third, what ever happened too the entrepreneural spirit, I think that needs some nurturing especially east of the river where you have some of the most creative minds ever that need just a little encouraging. Lets stop this defeatist crap and move to face this challenge.The real problem is changing the (image) of the area which attracts more businesses to the area, that's what brings the folks from behind the wall's and into the community to spend money.

  • Tothebest

    Bunn is the type of crooked, corrupt trash that keeps Ward 8 in the position that it is in.

  • Southeast Resident

    Did you think that all of those nice new homes that they are now building at Sheridan Terrace and also soon at Barry Farms are for the current Ward 8 residents? I don't think so! You have to have somewhere for the DHS workers to live so that they don't have a long commute from Maryland and Virginia. Once this is done, then money will flow all up and down MLK Jr. Avenue. Those folks have to have somewhere to shop. One of the new businessmen that come in will even take the throne away from Bunn as the President of the Ward 8 Business Council. Plus these new folks will even have a trolley to ride and entertain themselves.

  • AMamiMus

    It's sad, but Southeast Resident speaks the true future of Congress Heights. I used to conduct home visits for an environmental nonprofit offering in-home counseling about lead hazards and asthma triggers in the home in 2007--and I saw the new townhome community on one side of Wheeler Rd...and the public housing complexes on the other side. How many of those residents do you think still live in those townhomes, since 2007 is when this recession supposedly started? "Affordable housing" is a relative term in this market; so, who do you think can afford any of those "gently used" townhomes at this point?

    Newly appointed, DHS employees...

  • Brian


  • Southeast Resident

    @Brian. Aren't you one of those DHS Feds?

  • vigilant

    "James my breath peels wallpaper Bunn" is the most incompetent illiterate senior citizen I've ever met. He and Brenda Richardson need to go sit in a corner and swallow a bottle of mouthwash and leave the politics to someone who truly cares about the community. They are more concerned with fattening their own than doing anything for Ward 8 residents. POVERTY PIMPS INDEED!

  • plive202

    Of course this will improve the "neighborhood" - neighborhood being the location itself. Yes, money will pour in because, as stated above, because DHS is consolidating there is no way their employees are willing to commute that far from MD or VA suburbs. They need places more suitable to wine and dine at, so MLK ave will certainly change. Slowly, more and more newcomers will trickle in.

    Perhaps as a legit born and raised DC resident (5th and P street when it was 100% black), we know exactly what's coming (and no im not anti-gentrification). Maybe some are unaware of the reputation U street had in the 90s - I lost count of how many wash post articles would talk about the "decay and despair" and rampant drug dealing. Ask any local and they'll tell you some parts of NW (and NE north of capitol hill) were EASILY as violent as SE. If you asked 90% of new residents in the 80s and 90s if U street (or H street, colum heights,shaw, etc.) was livable, they would answer with a resounding "Hell No".

    So yes, the immediate area surrounding the facility will improve - streets will improve, retail will be better, theyll tear down barry farms. Of course a decent chunk of the current resdents won't be around to see it. I'm not complaining though, because I understand that's just how the economy works and the money from the suburbs is slowly returning to the city.

  • TJ

    Look. Some of the people who read the City Paper live in Ward 8. I've lived in Congress Heights, just along the MLK corridor, for most of my life. Does the area need revitalization? Absolutely. Has that already begun? Definitely. Will future business development of the area be initiated and patronized by locals? Hopefully (I'd like to open my own restaurant here in the next few years, to cater to the DHS employees, the long-time residents, and the buppie crowd moving into our townhome developments).

    But do the people who live in Ward 8 need to consistently be abused by armchair critics who have never even bothered to leave Northwest and cross the river (and don't know any of us who live here)? The answer to that is a resounding "Hell no."

    P.S. Your quadrant has the highest crime rate in the city. Oh, and two final words: Sursum Corda.

  • IMGoph

    tj: who are you directing this anger at? not everyone who comments on this story fits the description you've given.