St. Elizabeths East could become a community hub, but it'll take time
In January 2003, then-Mayor Anthony Williams announced plans to reimagine St. Elizabeths East Campus as a new community hub. Over 10 years later, it's beginning to materialize, but the private investment and new opportunities neighbors were promised have yet to arrive.
Neighborhood residents, community leaders, and local business owners participated in the first planning process for the District-owned campus in Congress Heights. Now, Mayor Vincent Gray is doing it again. After decades of disinvestment in the area, his administration is building new schools, new recreation centers, and the St. Elizabeths Pavilion, a new community center that opened last year.
While a planned vendor market hasn't started yet, a series of temporary events have positioned the pavilion to become an established rental venue, says Catherine Buell, Executive Director of St. Elizabeths East. To attract activity to the site, the city opened a free ice slide, hosted a free performance by a Grammy-award winning R&B artist, held fitness classes and has drawn a line-up of popular food trucks.
"The Pavilion has been a success," says Buell, a resident of Historic Anacostia, noting that over 10,000 people from across the region have come to St. Elizabeths East, a former mental health institution that was previously closed to the public. "And they are comfortable here," she adds.
Confirming city officials' desire to make the Pavilion a family-friendly destination, on a recent weekend, its meeting space hosted a community organization, while in the next room a group of small children played games under adult supervision.
Officials admit there's still work to do. "There were areas we needed to do a better job of tending to," says Buell. "We knew starting up an enterprise was going to be hard, but we have developed and built up a dynamic brand."
Last month, Victor Hoskins, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, disclosed the city had prematurely terminated its relationship with a management company that the city had paid over $250,000 to assist with marketing, booking and event planning at the Pavilion. The next step will be soliciting "successful third-party rentals" that can begin making the Pavilion a place of commerce. "Vendors are interested," Buell affirms.
Elsewhere on the campus, redevelopment plans are slowly moving forward. St. Elizabeths East Chapel, where Mayor Williams first announced plans to redevelop the campus in 2003, could soon become the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center, a business incubator that "will bridge the gap between the innovation field and local community" until a more permanent space is built. The permanent space, the 500,000-square-foot St. Elizabeth's Innovation Hub, can't proceed until 2016, when important infrastructure improvements are built.
In a press release, District officials said they "expect to create" a Demonstration Center with a "Digital Inclusion Center" with a state-of-the-art computer lab where residents can receive computer training, classrooms for job training and placement services, community meeting space, and "entrepreneurship and career conference areas." It should open this summer.
But the key phrase is "we expect to create." In conversations with community members in and around Congress Heights, many expressed a fatigue over the past decade in attending meetings and reading stories that foretold a new day of private investment and opportunity was round the corner. That day has yet to come.
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