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What does it take to re-energize Dudley Sq?

Business changes spark questions on the district’s needs

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 9/13/2017, 10:32 a.m.
The replacement of a culturally-focused store on a prominent corner junction near the Dudley Square transit hub with a business ...
PLS Check Cashing replaced A Nubian Notion at a prominent corner storefront in Dudley Square. Banner Photo

The storefront at a prominent corner junction near the Dudley Square transit hub has transformed from an Afrocentric goods and convenience store to a check cashing operation.

The replacement of a culturally-focused store with a business that generally serves low-income clients with few other financial options raises questions about the shape Dudley Square’s business future will take. PLS Check Cashers already was in the area, but shifted location when A Nubian Notion shuttered.

According to Rodney Singleton, a resident long active in the community, a check casher does not help community members advance. He says the area would be better served by a hardware store, dry cleaners, bank or credit union.

“Why is it that our community always gets the check cashing storefronts? It’s either a dollar store, MetroPCS or check cashing. We don’t seem to aim high when it comes to storefronts or businesses in our community,” Singleton said.

He argues that there are enough local dollars to support other economic options and therefore tenants. He underscores his point by citing the tendency of many to spend outside the district for groceries, as well as the robust sales of Black Market, a recently opened space that regularly features a pop-up market of arts and Afrocentric goods.

David Price is the executive director of Nuestra Comunidad, the development corporation that rented out the corner space to PLS Check Cashing. He says he believes this particular check cashers is a good actor and provides a valuable service. Price did not consider other potential tenants, but says that doing so could have meant letting the space lie vacant — and thus feed a discouraging image for the business district.

“The retail market here is weaker than a lot of folks realize,” Price said. “There was an expectation that when the Bolling Building opened, there’d be tremendous demand by retail stores to open here. …[But] if you look around Dudley Square, about a month ago I counted eight vacant spaces — not counting those vacant spaces that were under agreement to have a new tenant come in.”

The debate raises questions that stakeholders have to address as they seek to revitalize the Main Streets District, which has declined in vitality since its heyday in the ’60s.

Purchasing power

Price believes that strengthening Dudley Square can include marketing aimed at recruiting desirable businesses, but that the first step is increasing the presence of would-be-customers with a range of incomes.

“It’s more than trying to come up with some ideal mix of businesses — you can’t wave a magic wand and get your preferred business to open here like Starbucks or Fridays. They’re going to come because there’s purchasing power,” Price said. “We need more purchasing power and that means people of all incomes.”

Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets, said in a separate conversation that one barrier to attracting some businesses that local residents want, such as cafés, is the lack of a sufficiently large base of customers with the disposable income to regularly patronize them. The area’s high concentration of affordable housing skews the customer base toward those with low monthly incomes, but the planned 25-story Rio Grande Tower could supply an influx of middle-class purchasers, she said.