A Wisconsin Avenue Re-birth under a Re-lit Georgetown Theater Sign?
Residents and business persons met Nov. 29 at the old Georgetown Theater, now emptied of its jewelry stands, to discuss the commercial potential of Wisconsin Avenue in the center of the village. The brainstorming session, sponsored by the Citizens Association of Georgetown, was headlined by Councilman Jack Evans, real estate developer Herb Miller and retail broker John Asadoorian, a board member of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, with CAG secretary Topher Mathews of the Georgetown Metropolitan as moderator.
The former theater still sports its rusty old sign, now famous, but also stands as a reminder of the loss of a once lively mix of nearby retail businesses at Wisconsin Avenue and O Street. Along with it vanished the Georgetown Pharmacy, Little Caledonia, Au Pied du Cochon and Neam's Market, which was frequented and beloved by residents for decades.
“I would love to see that sign re-lit,” said Angie Heon Nys, one of the Heon family owners of the Georgetown Theater property at 1351 Wisconsin Ave., which has been for sale for more than two years. Others thought the idea of re-lighting the sign – not a new idea – could be a catalyst for this commercial stretch of the avenue. “I remember when Wisconsin Avenue was more important than M Street,” said George Heon. While chains get the attention, Mathews offered a break-down of Georgetown retail businesses, showing that more than 70 percent are independents. Of all retail, roughly 25 percent are restaurants and 25 percent are clothing stores.
Asadoorian cautioned that statistics can mislead, saying that “chains are the bricks, and independents the mortar” of local retail. He said the market was the main decider of which businesses would choose to set up shop and added that Georgetown might be getting the reputation as “a hard place to do business.”
“Instead of sticks,” Asadoorian said, “we need carrots.”
Evans reminded those in attendance that he has lived in D.C. since 1978 and in Georgetown since 1993: “I think it is the best community in the U.S. and the world.” He also recalled all the work done to improve the town's infrastructure. With the increasing interest and leadership on fixing the avenue, Evans said that a plan ought to be agreed upon and not left to chance.
Miller said that there needs to be a vision for Wisconsin Avenue “from Safeway to the waterfront.” And with $11 million left over from the Tax Incremental Financing that was paid for by Ward 2 for Penn Quarter's and Gallery Place's redevelopment, Miller suggested that the money might be moved for use anywhere in Ward 2 – specifically, Georgetown – to assist new retail tenants. (Such loans downtown helped the Spy Museum, which has promptly re-paid its loan, Evans said.)
Ideas bounced around during the meeting in the broken-down theater with a standing-room-only crowd. There is a lot of work and collaboration to do, all agreed. One sign of the future was the provider of refreshments for the group: the newly opened Paul Bakery, located near the intersection of Wisconsin and M. Paul is an international chain eatery of French breads, pastries and food that fits in perfectly with Georgetown's present and past.