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Barracks Row Leader Will Fight for Future

For many, Barracks Row is already the quintessential Main Street: It has the Irish pub, the nice restaurant, the salon, the bike shop. But the organization that helped create this scene is working to convince Washington, D.C., that there’s more to be done, and it has hired an experienced executive director to carry it all out.

Barracks Row Main Street has chosen Cristina Amoruso to replace Bill McLeod, who saw the Southeast Capitol Hill organization through more than four years of successful development. McLeod left in December to take over as head of the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District.

“I thought it would be an incredible challenge to work with an organization that had achieved the Nobel Prize for Main Streets,” Amoruso said, referring to the organization’s 2005 Great American Main Streets Award. “They’ve done incredibly interesting things. They’ve faced some enormous challenges and they won, but there’s still a lot to do.”

Barracks Row often is seen as the success story among D.C. Main Street projects, which include Capitol Hill’s H Street and the Shaw neighborhood. But now that Barracks Row Main Street has transformed Eighth Street Southeast into a dining and nightlife destination, its new focus is on several big projects to make it into an arts district, said Linda Gallagher, co-chairwoman and president of Barracks Row Main Street.

“I know everybody looks at us and says, ‘Oh, well you’re done,’ but really we’re not,” she said. “If you really look critically at it, there’s a lot of stuff not up to the par we want it.”

On the wish list is redesigning the Eastern Market Metro station into a town square, increasing the number of shops in the area and implementing stricter environmental standards for businesses. The organization already has one big project under way: The District Department of Transportation has allotted $260,000 for a mural and landscaping project that would hide the Interstate 295 freeway overpass, which splits Eighth Street into two sections.

But while money for specific projects is coming in, the organization has had trouble raising funds for its operational budget, which includes Amoruso’s salary. Unlike a Business Improvement District, which is guaranteed an extra tax from area properties, Main Street organizations are funded through donations and the city. And after five years of decreasing allocations, D.C. is set to end funding this year for the Barracks Row organization. Groups that donate, Gallagher said, usually want to see their money used for projects, and without city funding, the less obvious costs of staff and operating will be hard to pay. So Gallagher is asking the city for $100,000 next fiscal year, up from $20,000 this year.

“It just never ends,” she said. “There’s all these challenges.”

Main Street organizations are sometimes viewed as a jump-start to a blighted area — a temporary organization that focuses on revitalizing a few blocks and bows out after it succeeds in drawing businesses to the area. But both Gallagher and McLeod maintain that these streets need a permanent group to guide ongoing development and transformation.

“Really, Main Streets should be around forever,” McLeod said. “Retail is always evolving; things need to be maintained.”

Amoruso said Barracks Row now needs to be established as a shopping destination that exudes community spirit. The characteristics are there, she said; when she visited as a stranger in April, “everyone and their dogs were saying ‘hello.’”

“If you’re looking at retail figures, people will spend more time and more money at retail because it provides them with experience. That’s what I love about Barracks Row,” she said. “It’s got different people. It’s not static. I can see it’s growing and it’s moving.”

Amoruso currently is the executive director of Boonton, N.J., Main Street. She has lived around the world, spending her childhood in the Middle East and Europe before moving to Houston when she was 14. Those years in Houston — “a city devoid of any center” — made her yearn for a downtown meeting place like Barracks Row, she said.

“If you don’t have them you are really missing out on something, and I felt it,” she said. “You don’t think what your emotional ties are to the physical landscape until you don’t have them.”

Aside from being a certified Main Street manager, she also has several degrees on the issues that make up many Main Street projects. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science with a concentration in urban studies from the University of Houston, a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Miami and a master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia University.

“I think it was just a unanimous consensus that she’s a great person and has the qualifications,” Gallagher said. “I think we honestly couldn’t have found a better person.”

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