The signs of the economic impact on businesses near the Walter Reed Medical Center, which is slated for complete closing in September, have already caused panic and anxiety for local establishments.

The Walter Reed Inn, a popular motel directly across from the hospital has been closed for months and relied heavily on business from the medical center to survive.
Here’s a warning to businesses and communities in the area: all businesses must be ready for the unexpected fallout.

Years ago, a ring of businesses sprung up around the medical center to serve its staff and visitors. With few other options to generate profits, the immediate future of several is uncertain.

Several blocks away, Tropicana, a Black-owned carryout known for its tasty Jamaican cuisine, contemplates its next move.

“The economic realities are already becoming clear,” lamented Gail Howard, wife of Tropicana owner David Howard. “Walter Reed accounted for 50 percent of our customers. This year’s receipts are 25 percent below last year’s. Once they close down, I’m not sure we’ll be able to stay in business.”

Negassa Rebu, general manager of Motel 6, located across the street from the southern end of the hospital, said it is bracing for the impact.

“We have seen a traumatic difference,” Rebu said. “But unlike the Walter Reed Inn that relied 100 percent on the military, we average about 25 percent of our customers from the individuals visiting the hospital.” 

The biggest national chains, represented locally by the Safeway on Piney Branch Road and the CVS Pharmacy directly across the street from it along Georgia Avenue, are not unduly concerned.

“We’re not concerned about the closure affecting the business at our Piney Branch store as the vast majority comes directly from residents,” said Craig M. Muckle, public affairs and government relations manager for the Eastern Division of Safeway, in an e-mail. “Any business we had from visitors or employees from Walter Reed were not factored in to the business plan.”

The upcoming downsizing of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was authorized as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure commission (BRAC) recommendations. It slated 33 major military bases across the U.S. for complete shut-down and 29 others (including Walter Reed) for “realignment.”

The U.S. House of Representatives subsequently passed a resolution requiring the secretary of defense to implement the recommendations between Sept. 15, 2007 and Sept. 15 of this year.

Walter Reed occupies 113 acres of land upon which some kind of federal facility or another has sat since 1791. In April 2009, the federal government declared 62.5 acres on the base surplus land, which triggered the start of aggressive planning on the part of local officials to prepare for the hand-over. Subsequently, the District established the Walter Reed Local Redevelopment Authority.

“This new boundary map greatly increases the development and job creation potential for the District by extending the District’s control of the entire Georgia Avenue frontage,” said D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray in a press release. “It will also allow for better connectivity across the site with new entrances off of 16th Street.”

The most recent proposed plan includes 900 housing units, fire station, streetcar, office space, retail shops, a Pre-K through 12 school/university, community recreation and fitness center, refurbished historical sites and much more.

“This project will be a major economic driver that will revitalize a corridor and deliver better access to quality affordable housing, retail and green space for the residents of the District and my Ward 4 constituents,” said D.C. Councilwoman Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) in a press release.

The Rev. Douglas Moore, a former councilman who lives directly across from the medical complex on its northern border, was a city planner for the revitalization of the 14th Street and H Street corridors after the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Moore said the proposed development and designs have not been presented to nearby homeowners, who could be affected by rodents fleeing abandoned buildings and the enormous amount of traffic that will be generated.

“The plans have not been easily assessable to the public. The website has been up and down. There have not been opportunities for ongoing community input,” Moore said.

Researcher DeRutter Jones contributed additional material to this story.

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO