Businesses in Washington, D.C., have a relentless champion and cheerleader in Vincent Bernard Orange, president and CEO of the District of Columbia Chamber ofCommerce, which is celebrating “80 Years of Delivering the Capital.”
The energetic Orange has the contacts, ideas and energy to deliver the goods, it seems, whether by dealing with small businesses or by looking at concepts to redevelop the area at and around RFK Stadium.
Sitting with Orange at the 21st Street office of the D.C. Chamber at Lafayette Center— in a building occupied mostly by Medstar Health, with its Caps and Wizards workout and medical facility across from his office — we ask the question on everyone’s mind: Will retail behemoth Amazon choose D.C. for its second headquarters?
Orange says he does not know — but that it would be great for the nation’s capital. “Yes, there is a lot of activity happening in our economy,” he says.
Orange looks to the RFK footprint and east of the Anacostia River for significant growth. Noting the work of former mayor Anthony Williams, Orange envisions connecting RFK, the D.C. Armory and Langston Golf Course to the National Arboretum. “My dream is a PGA clubhouse at the Arboretum. It is a golden opportunity,” he says. “It would take the nation’s capital to another level … an Olympic level.” (And, while you’re at it, get another Metro stop on Benning Road.)
For this Chamber president, to ensure such successes, three essentials must be addressed: education, workforce and housing. His group provides its members with the necessities of “visibility, networking, advocacy and business growth and development initiatives.”
Two-thirds of the city’s workforce comes from outside the District, says Orange, who wants to reverse that to two-thirds of the workforce living in D.C. “We need a resident workforce.”
In education, he says emphatically, “We need the basic steps. Students must be totally ready for middle school and beyond.”
For more housing, he asks, why not relax the height restrictions on buildings, not downtown, but at the northern border of the District?
Naturally, Orange is keen to tout the D.C. Chamber, founded in 1938 — and which is holding an 80th anniversary celebration on Oct. 19 at the Marriott Marquis. Formed to provide services for African American businesses in the city, the group changed its name to the Negro Chamber of Commerce in 1946, but in 1956 reestablished itself as the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce, for all D.C. businesses.
Orange took over after Barbara Lang’s tenure and the group’s three years in the doldrums in a surprising fashion: he lost an election. After serving as the District Council representative for Ward 5 from 1999 to 2007, and then as an at-large council member from 2011 to 2016, Orange stumbled in the primary and now saysit was “a blessing in disguise.”
The former politician — picked by the Chamber in August of 2016 — now deals with businesspersons, educators, association heads, decision-makers, creatives and, yes, elected officials, most of whom he knows well. He uses his skills to affect change in a different way, and cannot wait to get up in the morning. “I’m in a good place,” hesays.
On Oct. 5, the Chamber presented its inaugural State of the District & Region Conference, with five panels at the University of the District of Columbia. Heavy hitters opined on “Economic Development, Business, Health and the Metropolitan Region.” Panelists included Sharon Pratt (Kelly) and Vincent Gray, both former mayors; Council members Phil Mendelson and Kenyan McDuffie; Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner; Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax; economist Stephen Fuller; and theChamber’s chair, Marie Johns.
Still, many like Orange recall the economic debacle of the 1990s, when a control board took over the D.C. government. A CPA, Orange had been hired by then-Mayor Marion Barry earlier to codify the D.C. Tax Amnesty Program. He looked at the books and saw a deficit coming, he says.
Today, D.C.’s booming economy has a problem many big U.S. cities face: how to keep affordable housing within its boundaries.
“D.C. is here for everyone … along with each neighborhood’s characteristics … and beyond the National Mall,” says Orange, who wants his business organization to work with others to stabilize the social fabric. “Our economic prosperity and robust employment levels depend on addressing the disruptive effects of population growth and development that have remade our neighborhoods.”
The teenager from Oakland, California, who got a Better Chance scholarship to attend a prep school in Colorado, is now an evangelist for the necessity of a good education for all. Orange holds a B.S. in business administration and communications from the University of the Pacific, a master’s degree in taxation from Georgetown University and a J.D. from Howard University.
He was the baby brother with seven sisters and two brothers, fishing from a dock on the bay — a shipyard at the East Bay (usually for yellow perch).
Now, at age 61, Orange is a grandfather. The baby’s name is Layla Elizabeth Orange. His children are Vincent, Paul and Jamie. His wife, Gwen, “keeps me on track,” he says.
With a happy heart, a top-notch staff and a gym across the hall, Orange says his jobis to “keep this train moving forward.”