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Government pancakes for 'underserved' yuppies

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If you pay income taxes, I'd like to thank you. You'd already done so much by buying General Motors, and now you've built an International House of Pancakes right near my home in Washington. You didn't do it alone, but you did provide a $766,000 grant through the Department of Health and Human Services.

The new franchise, an IHOP press release announced this month, "contributes to the revitalization of an underserved community," but don't start getting visions of some blighted inner city core. The "underserved community" is Columbia Heights, which is anything but "underserved." It's been a local shopping mecca for nearly three years now and one of Washington's more desirable neighborhoods.

If you find a house within five blocks of this new IHOP selling for less than $550,000, don't buy it -- there's probably something wrong with it. Affordable housing programs have prevented a total wipeout of the neighborhood's poor renters, but the market fetches $1,800 a month for the smallest one bedroom (539 square feet) in the apartment building across the street from IHOP.

The new IHOP is part of the DCUSA shopping center. Nearby are Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, Best Buy, Giant, Starbucks, Staples, FedEx Kinko's, Five Guys, Potbelly's, Chipotle, and Commonwealth Gastropub, just to name a few. The nearby Heights restaurant serves a "goat cheese sun-dried tomato burger," but you might have to wait 20 minutes for an outdoor table.

A few blocks to the northeast are Meridian Pint, with an impressive selection of foreign beers that go for $7 to $8 a pint, and Room 11, where you can spend a day's pay on microscopic portions of savory jamon Iberico, olives and Rioja wines.

How did this community become the taxpayer's beneficiary? Butch Hopkins, CEO of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., explained to me that his organization had applied for and received the $766,000 grant from HHS last year, to invest in the new restaurant in exchange for a minority equity stake.

AEDC has put other government grants to work in genuinely underserved neighborhoods like Anacostia. And Hopkins, who takes a modest $56,000 salary from AEDC (although he receives a lot more from a related for-profit entity), has been doing this sort of work since before I was born. But I still had to ask him why they are "developing" such a well-developed neighborhood. Doesn't Columbia Heights already have every kind of business under the sun?

"They do now," Hopkins told me. "They have IHOP!"

Hopkins told me that I'm missing the point. The whole "pancakes for yuppies" idea, he said, is in fact a good thing. "The object," he said, "is to earn revenue from those projects, to take revenue from our return and bring it back to Anacostia."

But are HHS grants really intended to help build profitable amenities in extremely well-served, gentrified neighborhoods?

Acting HHS Assistant Secretary David Hansell, who was on hand at the IHOP's opening Tuesday, pointed out the benefits. "A lot of folks came out looking for jobs here," he said, adding that many new employees had previously been on welfare. A very important point.

Also important: We'd create even more jobs if HHS would underwrite new IHOPs in Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, and Friendship Heights. Maybe HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius could get to work on that.

There is also some irony that, in this day of anti-obesity crusades, the secretary of Health and Human Services used her own discretionary grant money to subsidize a restaurant that serves two of Men's Health magazine's 20 most unhealthy restaurant dishes -- and that doesn't even include the 1,250-calorie "cheesecake-pancake" stacker combo.

In any case, the government has filled a void by making pancakes available to D.C.'s professional class after the neighborhood "Gastropub" closes. Thank you, taxpayer, I cannot wait to try it out.

David Freddoso is The Examiner's online opinion editor. He can be reached at dfreddoso@washingtonexaminer.com.

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