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Doing well and doing good

(Published January 24, 2000)


Staff Writer

The last 10 months have been an exciting ride for Calvin Johnson. While business deals can usually be boring, planning the pilot Timberland Community Store at Good Hope Marketplace in Southeast Washington has been anything but.

The buzz in the neighborhood surrounds a recently opened store that is designed to integrate "doing well and doing good" in an under-served community by contributing a percentage of its profits to grants and scholarships for area students.

Itís the first store in the country that hooks up the international clothing retailer Timberland and Community Impact, a nonprofit youth investment organization. At the hub is Johnson, a D.C. resident and president of Urban Hospitalities L.L.C., a consulting company that provides franchising and sales opportunities in cities.

Johnson is "a fabulous personÖseeped in community values" who has worked to hire young people and who is committed to economic development in Ward 8, said Greg Taylor, executive director of Community Impact USA. "He understands that you work to ensure that thereís a community benefit for the product youíre sharing."

As owner and manager, Johnson, 36, provides entrepreneurial training for young people at his Athleteís Foot stores that goes beyond providing them with a minimum wage part-time job, Taylor said.

"We want the people who work here to think itís more than just a job," Johnson said.

Eight employees have been hired to work at the Good Hope Marketplace store, where Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road SE intersect, and Johnson hopes to hire more soon. It was critical for the two stores to be close together so he could be present at both and train his employees to be able to work in both, he said.

Urban Hospitality owns three Athleteís Foot stores in addition to the one at Good Hope Marketplace Ė another in the District, one in Maryland and one in Ohio.

Since it opened in mid-December, business at the Timberland store has been "phenomenal," Johnson said. The store made 40 percent more in sales than projected for the month.

"Itís important to put quality retail in urban communities," he said. "The communityís been dying for it."

Although many quality retail companies seem hesitant to open urban stores in neighborhoods beyond downtown business districts, Timberland believed in the project, Taylor said. "Financially it is a sound business investment." The only risk for the company was hammering out a commitment where part of proceeds is given back to the community, he said.

Thatís where Johnson fits in. For years he has been a member of Community Impactís Southeast Washington steering committee, which distributes money for scholarships and other community investment projects. And as president of Urban Hospitality for its four years in existence, Johnson knows the neighborhood and it knows him -- part of the reason that the Timberland store landed the vacant storefront.

The community wanted a sit-down restaurant in the center, and a minority-owned seafood eatery that was trying to break into the D.C. market expressed interest in the location, said Albert Hopkins, president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp.

"As we marketed that space we had two choicesÖWe had two good retailers and unfortunately one spot to lease to them," he said.

So they took it to the community to decide. The Skyland Area Taskforce, made up of area residents and merchants, chose to bring in the Timberland store because residents were familiar with Johnson and his "wonderful program" of working with area youth, Hopkins said.

Companies that want to break into such a market "need someone who knows social and community networks, who can get beyond the perception of the neighborhood. To some degree we do this, but thatís what makes (Johnson) powerful," Community Impactís Taylor said. "He understands that rather than fearing young people, you hire them. I donít think lots of other businesses get that."

Urban Hospitality is aiming to have 20 to 30 quality retail stores across the country, although the location for the second shop has not been decided yet. No matter the city, the success of both the Athleteís Foot and Timberland stores proves that "people in urban areas have the cash to buy," Johnson said.

"Other companies are clamoring about how we did it," Taylor said. Without a knowledgeable community partner, the urban market is "a difficult nut to crack," he said, because companies that donít listen to the community arenít likely to be successful.

Taylor said he hopes the Timberland store spurs further economic development in the area to bring in services that the community wants and needs.

Johnson sees the pilot store as a chance to "make some money and do the right thing," he said. "A lot of times people think you canít do the two things together."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator