City Desk

Sen. Tom Coburn: Columbia Heights Isn’t “Underserved”

It's hard to believe that Oklahoma's Republican Sen. Tom Coburn has ever been to the IHOP in Columbia Heights' DCUSA shopping center. In his 2011 "Wastebook," a guide to what he considers wasteful government spending, Coburn lists the subsidy received by Jackson Investment Company as the sixth most egregious (thanks to New Columbia Heights for pointing this out):

An International House of Pancakes (IHOP) franchise was built with financial assistance courtesy of Uncle Sam. It was intended to help an "underserved community." The federal funding went to the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation.  According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), "$500,000 of the $765,000 grant was used as an equity injection in DC Pancakes LLC for a 19% ownership interest." The remaining funds went to training costs for new employees, and other consultants.

The new IHOP is not located in an "underserved community" but a popular Washington D.C. neighborhood. The neighborhood is Columbia Heights, which has become a local shopping hot spot for some and "one of Washington‘s more desirable neighborhoods."

Coburn quotes an Examiner column about Columbia Heights which asserts that the neighborhood isn't underserved because, among other things, Meridian Pint serves fancy imported beers. (It doesn't, by the way. As New Columbia Heights notes, it sells largely local brews, including some made in the District.) Last year Lydia DePillis described how the IHOP franchise qualified for a subsidy—and yes, some of the problems with that. But those problems had to do with directing subsidies intended for local businesses to a franchise of a national chain.

Because if you spend some time at the IHOP, it's clear that it's one of the few restaurants that serves the area's working class residents—people who, despite Coburn's assertions, do still live in Columbia Heights. Just last month, hundreds of low income residents lined up overnight on 14th Street for a shot at 10 open apartments and 100 spots on a waiting list for subsidized housing in the Hubbard Place apartments.

I asked Coburn's spokesperson John Hart why the senator flagged Columbia Heights as affluent.

It wasn't a surprise that he ignored my main question, instead writing back, "If the D.C. government wants to invest more in IHOP they are certainly welcome to do so. We don't believe this should be a priority of the federal government when we're running a $15 trillion debt and our entitlement programs are on the brink of insolvency."

This may just be a matter of ideological consistency. Coburn, whose nickname is "Dr. No," generally doesn't want to spend any money on anything—no matter how "underserved" it really is. But Washington City Paper would be happy to buy Coburn a short stack on Irving Street if he'd like to check it out.

Update: Courtesy of Media Matters for America, here's video of Fox News Channel's coverage of the Coburn report, in which the network's anchors complain about "pancakes for yuppies."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • DCS

    Are you sure these dollars weren't used primarily for the IHOP in Ward 8, given that the dollars went to the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation? To be sure, the DC franchisee may own both locations but if the dollars were used primarily for the location in Ward 8, then it really negates the Senator's premise - i don't know the answer but just that further clarification may be warranted?

  • Shani Hilton

    @DCS, will double-check!

  • Peter Orvetti

    I'm with Coburn on this one. While Columbia Heights (where I've lived since 2002) is hardly Georgetown, by the time the IHOP opened at DCUSA in the summer of 2010, area business was hardly in need of government stimulus.

  • Frank

    I agree Coburn's an idiot. I agree Columbia Heights is not affluent. But... wait. The federal government GAVE the owners of the Columbia Heights IHOP $765,000? To open a franchise of a successful franchisor? It is a "hot" area -- Coburn is right. That IHOP is mobbed. Why on earth would anybody think it is okay for the federal government to be funding that? That kind of business will be opened regardless of federal investment anyway. Did Target get a federal grant? Did Panera? Did Bed Bath and Beyond? This is insane.

  • Peter Orvetti

    If I recall correctly, the funding was for the DCUSA location, due to the projected creation of about 110 jobs.

  • Joe

    I thoroughly dislike Coburn, but I'm with him on this as well. The CH IHOP is a scam already (it's not actually a local business, all those technicalities are crappy). It shouldn't be there in the first place, and NEVER should have gotten subsidies.

  • W Jordan

    Coburn is myopic, but so are the rest of you.

  • Otis Sycamore

    "I asked Coburn's spokesperson John Hart why the senator flagged Columbia Heights as affluent. It wasn't a surprise that he ignored my main question . . ."

    I would have ignored your question too. He called it "popular," "not . . . 'underserved'", "desirable," and a "hot spot". Nowhere did he refer to Columbia Heights as "affluent".

  • Pingback: Coburn: D.C. Pancake Restaurant Is Government Waste | BNewsworld

  • David

    I agree that investing in IHOP in Columbia Heights shouldn't be a priority for the Federal government when it's running a $15 Trillion deficit. And that's exactly why the Federal government needs to stay out of local DC matters. Coburn wants to complain about how we manage our money, but won't let it not be his problem.

  • Andrew

    Thanks for posting this, I wrote the New Columbia Heights post. Coburn said Columbia Heights was not "underserved," with a footnote from that word linked to an Examiner article, which calls the neighborhood "extremely well served" talking about the supposedly fancy local restaurants, while a CBS columnist called the neighborhood "toney."

  • Andrew

    (That was in response to Otis.) Plus, David, the IHOP did bring 100+ jobs to the neighborhood, as Shani points out, and the franchise is owned by a local family.