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Mike O'Hara: Boosting Economic Growth in D.C.

Bohler DC's Mike O'Hara is a significant player in the city's business sector, dedicated to affecting change in the property development industry and boosting economic activity around Washington, D.C.

Mike is now expanding his influence as the recently elected co-chair of the Washington DC Economic Partnership (WDCEP), a position with enormous potential for driving economic growth in the nation's capital, which, with millions of square feet of vacant space downtown, is ripe for transformation.

Mike's impressive resume includes service on the board of directors for the DC Building Industry Association (DCBIA) and membership in several influential DCBIA groups, including working groups with the Departments of Transportation (DOT), Energy and Environment (DOEE), Buildings (DOB), and Water (DC Water). Mike engages with mid-level policymakers, discussing the city's difficulties and looking for methods to streamline and enhance operations.

Mike also works on the local Urban Land Institute (ULI) Advisory Board and the Local Housing Product Council, where he investigates various housing kinds, ranging from cheap to market-rate housing, in order to meet the diverse demands of the community.

We were able to catch up with Mike and learn about his vision for the future of development in D.C. In this Q&A, he discusses the significance of his new role and how it will affect the development community.

1. What has driven you to get involved in the Washington DC Economic Partnership?

Bohler DC has a longstanding connection with the WDCEP. I joined the partnership in 2020 to take over from Dan Duke.

One of the core reasons Bohler DC is engaged with the WDCEP is because the city’s economic viability impacts us and those looking to invest in the city. As members of the development community, we recognize the importance of bringing the perspective of the development community to this crucial organization. Our ultimate goal is to stimulate positive change in the city and make DC a leading city to start and run a business in the U.S.

Beyond our professional interests, we are deeply invested in the community and the city itself. Supporting the WDCEP is one way for us to give back and ensure the continued growth and prosperity of our community. Personally, as a resident of the DMV and now a homeowner in the District for over 12 years, with my children attending public schools, I have a vested interest in seeing the city thrive. It is an opportunity to contribute positively to the place I call home, even if I do have a playful conflict as a Philadelphia sports enthusiast among D.C. teams.

When I look around, I see that we are at a critical juncture. The pandemic has taken a significant toll on downtown areas, especially here in D.C. From my office window, I witness empty office buildings one after another, which underscores the urgent need for action. As part of the development community, we understand that addressing this challenge often involves various strategies, such as tenant fit-outs, building conversions, demolitions, and new constructions. All of these approaches are vital to revitalizing our city.

2. You were recently elected co-chair of the WDCEP Board of Directors. What does this role involve?

My role encompasses several key responsibilities. I am responsible for running the meetings and setting the agenda. It is essential to ensure that our discussions and actions are focused and productive. In addition, I’ll be working to increase board membership to reflect our diverse business community. To make a tangible impact and alter the trajectory of our initiatives, we will be establishing various committees. These committees will require active participation from all members to drive progress and effect change.

One of the initiatives we implemented last year involved creating committees to meet individually with city council members. These meetings provide a platform for open dialogue where we educate the public sector on the challenges we are hearing from the private sector, discuss ways to collaborate, and share the areas where progress has been made. We refer to these interactions as “fireside chats” with council members. Currently, we are expanding these conversations to include government agency directors as well. The aim is to foster meaningful engagement and maintain a continuous dialogue to address critical issues and develop effective solutions. We view these relationships as symbiotic and want to leverage the private sector strengths to assist the public realm to achieve its desired outcomes.

In my role, I will ensure that all individuals involved in the WDCEP are actively participating and contributing their expertise. By focusing on accountability and actively working towards effectuating change, we aim to create a thriving economic environment and make a substantial difference for the Washington, D.C., community.

3. How do your roles at Bohler DC and WDCEP complement one another?

As co-chair, I have the unique opportunity to convene the public and private sectors to ensure investment continues to flow into the city and its neighborhoods. One of the key advantages is the opportunity to engage different levels of leadership within the city. Our collaborative approach enables us to facilitate projects and connect the private sector directly to key decision-makers.

As a public-private partnership, WDCEP provides a platform to discuss and collaborate on the issues that will shape the future of the city, and its built environment. Between my work at Bohler DC and tenure as a WDCEP board member, I have established strong relationships with various director-level officials, including those from DDOT, DOB, the DC Office of Planning (OP), and the DC Office of Zoning (DCOZ). Being at the table with these key decision-makers allows me to have meaningful discussions and collaborate on finding solutions to simplify doing business in the city, such as permitting and approval procedures.

Typically, a development project in Washington, D.C., can take at least two years to complete, considering the conversion or construction process. However, our current focus is to spur economic growth and revitalize the city. This involves bringing people back to offices, attracting more tourists, and encouraging experiential retail. By actively engaging with the city agencies that touch the development process, we can contribute to creating an environment that fosters economic growth, drives business activity, and enhances the overall vitality of Washington, D.C.

4. Is the WDCEP currently promoting any specific types of development opportunities?

The WDCEP is actively exploring various development opportunities and strategies to promote economic growth. While office-to-residential conversions are often seen as a potential solution, that’s not the only approach to addressing the current challenges. We are committed to investigating different avenues and approaches to stimulate development.

One aspect we are focusing on is the examination of regulations. We aim to identify areas where regulations can support DC’s Comeback Plan. For instance, we are researching ways to expedite permitting procedures for businesses, such as restaurants, to reduce the timeframe from months to weeks. By implementing faster and more efficient processes, we can lower costs and facilitate quicker openings, which will ultimately contribute to a vibrant business landscape. My hope is that the efficient practices of the private sector will provide a successful model for the agencies to follow.

Another area of emphasis is revitalizing the retail sector. We acknowledge the presence of many empty storefronts, which is a common challenge in urban spaces. To attract retail establishments, we need to create a conducive environment that includes a thriving population. Encouraging firms to bring their employees back to offices plays a vital role in generating foot traffic and supporting retail businesses. In addition, we recognize the importance of attracting tourists, as they contribute significantly to the demand for retail and hotel services.

5. The WDCEP was recently at the ICSC Las Vegas. Why was it important to be at that event?

WDCEP, has a rich history as a retail attractor since its founding in 2001. The mayor, along with her economic development team, has consistently attended ICSC to engage directly with prominent retailers in one-on-one meetings. This tradition highlights the importance of building relationships and attracting retailers to the city.

Currently, one of the pressing needs in D.C. is a shortage of grocers, particularly in several wards where there is a lack of grocery stores within a mile radius. To address this issue, the WDCEP took the opportunity at the ICSC event to meet with major grocers. By engaging with these industry leaders, we aim to attract more grocers to the city. We understand that having a grocer anchor can serve as a catalyst for further retail development in the neighborhood and bring much-needed services to the underserved population.

Moreover, the WDCEP’s presence at ICSC allows us to showcase that Washington, D.C., is open for business. Simply having a booth and a visible presence generates buzz and signals to potential retailers and developers that the city is a desirable location for investment. It is an opportunity to highlight the city’s potential and foster interest among stakeholders in the retail and mixed-use sectors.

Furthermore, the ICSC event has evolved from being solely focused on retail to now encompassing a wider range of mixed-use developments. This expansion aligns with the efforts of private developers in Washington, D.C., who are involved in creating apartments and other mixed-use projects. By participating in ICSC, the WDCEP can engage with these developers, foster collaborations, and support the growth of mixed-use developments in the city.

6. Why should developers consider Washington, D.C., for their projects?

As the nation’s capital, D.C. offers a unique advantage that no other city can replicate. The city attracts a significant tourism business, drawing visitors from around the world. This provides developers with a built-in customer base and opportunities for businesses in various industries.

Another key factor is the exceptional workforce available in Washington, D.C. The city boasts a highly educated population and is home to numerous prestigious higher education institutions. This ensures access to a skilled talent pool, which is vital for the success of any development project.

The urban environment of D.C. is another appealing aspect for developers. The city’s vibrant and bustling atmosphere provides a desirable setting for businesses and residents alike. Additionally, D.C.’s strategic location offers proximity to other major urban markets, allowing for easy access and connectivity. This accessibility enhances the potential for business growth and collaboration.

On top of that, developers in Washington, D.C., can benefit from economic and tax incentives. These incentives are designed to encourage investment and stimulate economic activity, providing developers with financial advantages and support for their projects.


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