The Making of a Main Street: The Continuing Revitalization of the Rhode Island Avenue NE Main Street

“LISC has been an amazing partner, helping with our organizational capacity building by providing generous grants and phenomenal technical assistance.” — Kyle Todd, Executive Director of Rhode Island Avenue NE Main Street (RIAMS)

LISC DC supports programs that encourage entrepreneurship, attract new businesses, diversify the local retail mix, and stimulate employment. We provide loans, equity, grants, and technical assistance to organizations leading projects and programs that help attract new businesses and support existing businesses. A great example is our support of Rhode Island Avenue NE Main Street (RIAMS) in its quest to revitalize the Rhode Island Avenue NE Corridor into a thriving commercial corridor.

The Rhode Island Avenue NE Corridor passes through the lower-income, moderate density neighborhoods of Edgewood and Brentwood, as well as the middle-income, low-density neighborhoods of Brookland, Woodridge, and Langdon. Parcels along Rhode Island Avenue NE stretching from 13th Street NE to 24th Street NE are zoned for moderate density, mixed use residential and commercial uses; however, moderate density retail with wide sidewalks and street-facing stores do not currently appear until 20th Street NE.  This 4-block segment of Rhode Island Avenue NE is located in the Woodridge and Langdon neighborhoods and has recently seen a small but significant uptick in small business activity, including a small healthy foods grocery store, a coffee shop, a capoeira center, and a small gym, among others.

Formation of Rhode Island Avenue NE Main Street

At the heart of the commercial resurgence along the 2000 – 2400 blocks of Rhode Island Avenue NE is the Rhode Island Avenue NE Main Street (RIAMS), a nonprofit organization that formed in 2011 to give community members a voice in the development and commercial growth of the Rhode Island Avenue NE corridor – particularly in regard to basic neighborhood retail services that all of its neighbors can access and support. Neighbors wanted to have places to go in their community where they could grab a cup of coffee, purchase fresh fruit, or sit down and enjoy a meal in a restaurant. They saw abject underutilization of business opportunity in their neighborhood commercial corridor and took action. Organizing around this shared desire to have a voice in the development of the nearby commercial corridor, the neighbors began modeling their work and operations off of DC’s Main Streets Program.

In 2013, RIAMS became the newest addition to DC’s Main Street Program, which seeks to revitalize traditional business districts through storefront and façade improvement grants, technical assistance, streetscape and sidewalk beautification, special events, and other initiatives. The Main Street designation means that the RIAMS is now responsible for spurring the revitalization of Rhode Island Avenue NE between 3rd Street NE and Eastern Avenue. To that end, RIAMS is focused on improving commercial properties and streetscapes; promoting local businesses through special events and festivals; creating new jobs; and attracting new locally-owned businesses.

LISC DC Partners with the Rhode Island Avenue NE Main Street

In the summer of 2014, LISC DC entered the picture, when after having travelled along Rhode Island Avenue NE corridor for many years, LISC DC’s Executive Director inquired about who or what was responsible for the new spurts of life along commercial corridor.  She saw potential in this corridor and in RIAMS.  In 2014, LISC DC established a strong working relationship with RIAMS and its Executive Director, Kyle Todd. LISC DC staff toured Rhode Island Avenue NE corridor, and later solidified a formal partnership with RIAMS when it provided a grant to be passed through to Good Food Markets, a new local grocer on the corridor.

When LISC DC Senior Program Officer, Adam Kent, began to work with RIAMS, he saw a fledgling nonprofit with one full-time, overworked employee doing his best to helm an organization that was charged with bringing new life and opportunities to a 1.5 mile stretch of commercial corridor. It was clear that LISC DC could be of help, specifically supporting Kyle in his efforts to positively redevelop the business district. LISC DC has a toolbox of resources to help implement economic development initiatives, including lending products, tax credit equity, grant funds, staff expertise, and national LISC funding resources and technical assistance.

Our overarching economic development strategy for RIAMS was to build the capacity of the Main Street and invest in small businesses on the corridor. In late 2014, LISC DC set out to help Kyle in his quest to grow the organization and increase its impact along the corridor by coupling technical assistance and planning support from LISC DC staff, with grant support for operations.

Between late 2014 and mid-2015, LISC DC provided $45,000 in support funds to RIAMS and a small-scale grocery store on the corridor, as well as a demographic analysis for RIAMS that detailed trends across time in key variables that significantly affect the corridor.

A Roadmap for Action is Devised

In mid-2015, LISC’s National Economic Development Program brought in MetroEdge, a LISC tool that provides expert and data-driven guidance and support for local organizations seeking to revitalize a business district. Part of MetroEdge’s criteria for choosing a local LISC office to work with is that the local office has staff capacity to carry out the work, and for the community in question to have an existing partner on the ground.

“Kyle was already engaged with the Rhode Island Avenue NE community — both residents and business owners. And Adam had been building relationships, providing technical assistance, and was an overall go- getter.” – Elizabeth Demetriou, Program Director of LISC National Economic Development Program

Elizabeth Demetriou, Program Director of LISC’s Economic Development Program, brought in Larisa Ortiz Associates, a commercial revitalization firm, to prepare and present market analyses and related recommendations for RIAMS that identified opportunities for commercial revitalization and devised a roadmap for action – for both short and long-term improvements. MetroEdge was instrumental in connecting Kyle to the analyses and recommendations he needed to understand the current market, prepare for future development, and form a corresponding strategy for the Main Street.  Below is a summary of some of the recommendations:

LISC’s National Economic Development Program provided RIAMS with a $25,000 grant to do early implementation of items identified by MetroEdge. This allowed Kyle to have the capacity and time to implement recommendations and to bring new businesses to the commercial corridor while helping existing businesses continue to attract customers. To match LISC National’s commitment to RIAMS, LISC DC provided RIAMS with a $25,000 operating grant support via our Section 4 Grant program to hire a bookkeeper – a much needed and desired help for RIAMS’ staff of one!

Results of LISC DC’s Support of RIAMS

Our investment in RIAMS is an investment in not only in supporting the revitalization of a traditional commercial district through storefront and façade improvements, or streetscape and sidewalk beautification, but also in the capacity building of a nonprofit through technical assistance and grant support. It is an example of how we align our vision of RIAMS – a pedestrian and bike-friendly commercial corridor comprised of a diverse and engaged small business community that hires locally and provides the goods and services desired by surrounding residents – with our financial and technical support.

Since 2014, 36 businesses have opened up along the corridor. In 2016, RIAMS provided storefront improvement grants to 16 businesses on the corridor, small business technical assistance to 57 businesses, direct promotional opportunities for 132 businesses, and held multiple festivals that brought thousands of visitors from across the District and neighboring towns to businesses operating along Rhode Island Avenue NE. LISC DC looks forward to continuing to work with RIAMS to help grow its organizational capacity, to assist in bringing more resources to businesses located on the corridor, and ultimately, to helping build a vibrant and thriving commercial corridor that provides the goods and services desired by the surrounding community.

“We want to see RIAMS live up to its full potential as a safe and vibrant retail corridor for the community, and of course, we want to do this work in a continued partnership with LISC.” – Kyle Todd, Executive Director of RIAMS