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Adrian G. Washington is the founder and CEO of Neighborhood Development Company (NDC). Their mission is to develop exciting residential and commercial properties that cultivate vibrant communities. What does that mean? And how does a developer do that?
Well, that’s what Adrian and I talk about so listen in.
Adrian has over 30 years of experience in urban real estate development, construction and management. He founded NDC in 1999 and has served as President since then — except for a two year leave of absence from 2005 – 2007 when he left to lead the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation (AWC), the entity charged with leading a $10 billion, 20-year initiative to revitalize Washington, DC’s Anacostia Waterfront and surrounding communities. NDC has developed over 1,000,000 square feet of real estate, focusing on emerging urban neighborhoods while respecting the rich diversity of their existing fabric.
Adrian grew up in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood and is a lifelong resident of DC. He received his B.S. in Economics and Political Science from Stanford University and his M.B.A. in Marketing and Finance from the Harvard Business School. And he has received numerous individual awards reflecting his leadership in the development industry.
Insights and Inspirations
- Why develop a green field when you can redevelop an existing neighborhood and help it to thrive?
- See the people who are living there. They embody the neighborhood.
- Mix it up. Build affordable housing right next to luxury housing.
- Work with small businesses out of the community. They can become valuable tenants, not just for the developer but they bring value to the community as well.
- There’s lots of opportunity in Opportunity Zones.
Information and Links
- Adrian is excited to see NDC’s Benning Market built. It’s a food hall in River Terrace North East, and many of it’s investors came through a Small Change offering.
- NDC supports DC Greens, a local non-profit dedicated to food justice and health equity in Washington, DC.
- The project that Adrian is most proud of is the Residences of Georgia Avenue. This block buster project increased affordable housing options and healthy food options in a neighborhood considered a food desert.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: Hey, everyone, this is Eve Picker. If you listen to this podcast series, you’re going to learn how to make some change.
Eve Picker: Hi there. Thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing. My guest today is Adrian Washington. Adrian is the founder and CEO of Neighborhood Development Company, a Washington, D.C. real estate company focused on rebuilding vibrant communities through their work. Adrian fell in love with this type of development work and decided to make a career out of it, much to the good fortune of the neighborhood he works in. For Adrian, greenfields are boring. Nothing gives him greater pleasure than digging into a forgotten and neglected site and turning it into a neighborhood asset. I’ve had the good fortune of working with Adrian at Small Change, helping to raise funds for some of these projects.
Eve Picker: Be sure to go to EvePicker.com to find out more about Adrian on the Shownotes page for this episode and be sure to sign up for my newsletter, so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, Small Change.
Eve Picker: Good morning, Adrian. Thank you very much for joining me.
Adrian Washington: Thank you, Eve. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Eve Picker: So you have a real estate company called Neighborhood Development Company, and we’ve been lucky enough at Small Change to help you raise funds for one of your projects. Your company is in Washington, D.C. I’m just wondering if you’d like to tell us how long you’ve had Neighborhood Development Company, or NDC, and have you lived in D.C. all of your life?
Adrian Washington: I’m a native Washingtonian. I’ve lived here most of my life. I went away and went to school down in California; lived out there for a while; lived in Boston, but, essentially, I’ve been in D.C. all of my professional … I grew up here, and I’ve lived here all my professional life. I’ve been involved in real estate, altogether now, going on over 30 years and formed Neighborhood Development Company a little over 20 years ago, back in 1999.
Eve Picker: That’s quite a stretch. NDC’s mission, in your words, is to develop exciting residential and commercial properties that cultivate vibrant communities. What does it mean to you to cultivate vibrant communities? How does a developer do that?
Adrian Washington: We’ve always operated in urban areas of primarily Washington, D.C. and really always neighborhoods that were emerging; that were maybe down and out at one time or were starting to turn around. What we found in these neighborhoods is that we don’t look at them just from a brick-and-mortar perspective. We see the people that are living there now. They want their neighborhoods improved, but they don’t want to be displaced. They want shops and things that serve them, but don’t serve just outsiders. They welcome newcomers, but they want to feel those newcomers respect the place that [inaudible]. We see our role as balancing those things of making a neighborhood better for people who are living there, attracting new residents who want to be part of those communities, attracting businesses that want to be part of those communities, but not to displace people and not to alter the fundamental character. As developers, I think it takes like a real balancing act that we work with on a day-to-day basis.
Eve Picker: I do think it is a real balancing act. How do you fend off displacement?
Adrian Washington: We do it in, I guess, a number of ways that I think are unique in some developers in that we do both very high-end market-rate developments, but we also do affordable housing. We do affordable housing in a number of ways. We do it in traditional ways that more traditional developers do it, using government subsidy and the many programs involved. We also do it in more creative ways. For instance, we’ve worked in the past with failing cooperatives, where a group of tenants own their building collectively, and it’s just not working out, either because of bad management, or whatever. We team with them to provide our services with them but do it in a way that allows them to stay in their homes. That’s one way we do it.
Adrian Washington: Another way we do it is we really, in our commercial work, really like to work with entrepreneurs. Your typical developer may want that credit tenant. They want that CVS, or that Walgreens, or someone national. We really- we don’t go that way. We go in the opposite direction. For instance, in one of our developments, we have a salsa teacher, and she was doing lessons- it was a nice young couple. They were doing lessons out of their basement in the neighborhood.
Adrian Washington: They were so successful, they wanted to have their first studio. They came to us, and we had a space in one of our buildings, so we worked with them on the design; we worked with them on getting government grants to help them build out. We helped them with the construction. We gave them a favorable lease that started out low, and it allowed them to develop the business.
Adrian Washington: It was just a great neighborhood success story, where they stayed in the neighborhood. They had a service that appealed to both the newcomers and people who were in the neighborhood. They successfully grew their business. They’re now opening a second location. I think it’s really about creativity; using the skills we have as developers and businesspeople and connecting with people who have hopes and dreams – maybe not the same skills – and working out win-win solutions.
Eve Picker: That’s a really lovely story. Other developers might say that’s taking a risk with a little startup business that you don’t necessarily need to take. You could go get a credit tenant. So, why do you take that risk?
Adrian Washington: Well, I think a couple of reasons. It is kind of, on paper, riskier. Although we see with all the changes in the retail economy, yeah, you could have some business like a Blockbuster – going back in time, when everyone thought it was really successful, and now it’s out of business [cross talk]
Eve Picker: Yeah, that’s true.
Adrian Washington: Or even something like a McDonald’s, where everyone thought McDonald’s used to be the gold standard. Even now, you see some of those stores shutting. There’s not ‘no risk’ in a credit tenant, but I agree that there’s more hand-holding; there’s more involvement. You’ve got to pick your entrepreneurs carefully. You’ve got to help nurture them. Typically, they’re people who are great enthusiasts about what they know – if it’s salsa dancing or handmade pottery – but they don’t know about marketing; they don’t know about financing. You’ve got to work with them more.
Adrian Washington: We just find that more rewarding. It’s just fun. It’s creative. We feel like we’re helping people. We feel that we’re seeing eye to eye, because even though we’ve been in business 20 years, we’re still thinking of ourselves as an entrepreneur. The neighborhoods love it, so I think it makes us more popular in the neighborhoods. We’ve found that the success rate that we’ve had with these businesses is really pretty high and that the occasional failure that comes along, we just kind of build that into our pro forma. We’ve found that we were able to replace people who don’t like it with other people. All in all, we just find it’s more socially rewarding, it’s financially fine, and it’s just a lot more fun.
Eve Picker: It adds to the economy of the neighborhood you’re in, which is really lovely. Developers do lots of different sorts of things, and I’m wondering how you ended up here. How did you …? There must have been a path that took you towards this type of development.
Adrian Washington: Eve, I think it’s like a lot of things in life. I don’t know, maybe there are people who have these- design these great plans at age 12 and follow them through. I really didn’t. I went to undergrad; I went and got an MBA. I worked for a national consulting firm, and I thought that was my path, but I really hated it. At the meantime, I had bought a house in an emerging neighborhood and fell in love with that culture. I think I was really ahead of my time. I saw the appeal of walkable, livable neighborhoods. I saw the appeal of eclectic neighborhoods that had different types of architecture, that had different types of people, different races, different income groups, that was close to urban centers. I just thought that was great. I loved being in that neighborhood. I loved the change that I saw was going on. I loved the physical aspect.
Adrian Washington: Back when I was younger, I did everything. I did carpentry; I did plumbing [inaudible]. I just loved that whole environment. I think I was always an entrepreneur at heart … I was going to a day job that I hated, and I had this hobby that I loved, so I said, “Well, why don’t I see if I can turn this hobby into a business?” That was 30 years ago. It hasn’t been a straight line. There were struggles; there were failures; there were just dumb-ass things that I did that didn’t work out, but I always came back the next day and tried to do it better, and I’m really glad I did.
Eve Picker: Be sure to go to EvePicker.com and sign up for my free educational newsletter about impact real estate investing. You’ll be among the first to hear about new projects you can invest in. That’s EvePicker.com. Thanks so much.
Eve Picker: That’s a great reason why. It’s pretty wonderful to be able to be doing something that you really love and that adds to communities everywhere. So, I’m going to move on now to a project that I know you’re working on, called 1100 Eastern Avenue, which is one of your latest projects. We’re fortunate enough, at Small Change, that we’re going to be helping you to raise a little money for this project. I wanted to talk a little bit about it. Can you just tell us a little about what the project is, how big it is, the uses, where it is?
Adrian Washington: Well, sure, Eve. I’m really excited, and our whole team’s excited about 1100 Eastern. It’s really a project that embodies our beliefs, and uses all of our skill sets, and is just very exciting. It’s a mixed-use projects. Ground floor is a retail component; not that large, about 4,000 square feet. I think one of the great things about it is that there were … The site is sort of a rundown former- like a strip shopping center. A couple of the tenants there were folks that, frankly, the neighborhood was happy to see leave. It was a liquor store and an old carry-out. Not to knock those people, but they weren’t really what the community wanted.
Adrian Washington: There were a couple of tenants the community really did like. It was a barbershop that had been there for really a couple of generations. The current owner’s father had founded it back 35 years ago. She was still running it, and it was really a neighborhood institution. Then there was a daycare center. One of the things that we’re doing is allowing those people to come back to the new development in brand-new facilities. We’re even able to offer them, starting out, kind of with our philosophy, at the same rents they were paying, which were far below market. It’ll allow them to build up the market over a number of years, so we’re very excited about that.
Adrian Washington: Now, on the floors above it, there are five stories above it. These will contain 65 units of mixed-income housing. There’s housing for very low-income people, who were formerly homeless, who will be able to get wraparound services to allow them to transition to a more normal life. Then there are other units that will be for people of moderate incomes; people anywhere from – these are technical terms – but from 40 percent to 65 percent of the area median income. These range from what we would call pretty subsidized housing to more workforce housing, so we’ll have a range of people there.
Adrian Washington: We’re also very proud of what we’re doing is that we’re giving a really big mix of unit types. Typically, in any kind of new construction development, you’re seeing just people were just building one- and two-bedrooms, or studios. What we’re able to do in this building is to provide one-bedrooms, two-bedrooms, three-bedrooms, even a few four-bedroom apartments. It really will serve a number of different types of people in the neighborhood – seniors, people with families, people with kids. It’s just a great project that will really help everyone in the neighborhood, so we’re very proud and excited about it.
Eve Picker: That sounds really, really wonderful. The four-bedroom units are so unusual nowadays, and extended families are important, so that’s pretty great. I understand it’s also an Opportunity Zone, which is, as we all know, a very hot topic right now. How will that impact the development?
Adrian Washington: Opportunity Zones are exactly what you said, Eve; it’s a very hot topic. People are still figuring it out. I think that, unfortunately, early on, a lot of the Opportunity Zone benefits are going to people who are creating projects that would have been created anyway. We’re very proud that we feel this project will fit in what the Opportunity Zone true mission is, which is to bring capital to underserved neighborhoods – as I said, our commercial businesses, our neighborhood-serving businesses that were going to be displaced and that people in the community wanted to stay.
Adrian Washington: What we’re doing is we’re using Opportunity Zone benefits to attract capital to help keep these businesses in. So, I think that’s important. But, also, I think one of the key things I feel that Opportunity Zones is that the projects have to make sense, even if they weren’t in Opportunity Zones. We are a business that prides itself on not just being do-gooders, but being solid businesspeople, so we’ve underwritten the project carefully. We understand the costs, and the risks, and all of the factors. We think this is a project that works, even if it wasn’t in an Opportunity Zone. But we’re very happy to allow people who are investors who want to get a good return on their money, but also to have a meaningful social impact, to have all that, plus the tax benefits of the Opportunity Zone.
Eve Picker: For listeners who don’t really understand Opportunity Zone funds, because they are very complicated … Took me a long time to understand. The fund, in this case, is actually the project. It’s just the entity that the project is using as a legal entity, the LLC, that will become a fund, right? If people invest-
Adrian Washington: Yes, that’s right.
Eve Picker: It’s a 100-percent Opportunity Zone fund because it’s just a single-use fund, just one project. So, if people invest in it, they’re investing actually into the project itself, not into a fund that then serves a whole series of projects. They can take a really close look at the underwriting and see if they like it. I would agree with you, at the moment, the Opportunity Zone fund benefits are kind of gravy. I have yet to see a project that is moving forward simply because of those benefits. They don’t seem to be enough to make a project happen, right?
Adrian Washington: Exactly. We’ve used that approach, not just in Opportunity Zones, but with our other investor- projects. What we found over the years is that people- they want to know what they’re investing in, both from a business standpoint … They want to kick the tires, see if they believe in the construction costs, and the neighborhood statistics, and the tenants that are being there. They want to understand that. They also want to understand the story behind it. What’s going into the neighborhood? How will my investment benefit [inaudible] neighborhood? They really want to touch, and feel, and see that. We’ve had a lot of success over the years in doing that. This project really works in the same manner, where people can really learn about it, learn about us, learn about the neighborhood, learn about the businesses, and say, “Yeah, I want to put my money here. I believe in it as a financial investment. I also believe in it, in terms of its social [mesh].
Eve Picker: I think what I’m most excited about for Small Change is the fact that we’re helping you raise money for this Opportunity Zone fund. We may very well be the first Opportunity Zone fund offering investments- very small investments to everyone over the age of 18, not just accredited investors. I think many of the funds that we see around the country have really big minimum investment amounts of $100,000 or $200,000, or $500,000. This is going to be much smaller for everyday people, which personally I find very exciting. It’s yet another way to make it accessible to your investors in your neighborhood, right, Adrian?
Adrian Washington: Right, and we’re excited, too. Eve, as you know, and the audience may not know, is that you guys raised money for us on another project, our Benning Market project – a neighborhood called River Terrace. It was a nice way to raise money, but I think more importantly, it helped build support and build involvement in the project. I have people in that neighborhood who told me, “Yeah, I saw … I’m an investor in your project, and …” [cross talk]
Eve Picker: That’s great. That’s really great, yeah.
Adrian Washington: -“… and I saw it because I lived down the street and I wanted to be a part of it. I just thought it was cool that you allowed us to participate in that.” I think it really does build more of a sense of community; it builds more of a sense of involvement; it invokes transparency, because, frankly, I think that, in these days, developers are viewed with a lot of distrust. I think that by allowing community members to invest at investment levels that they can afford really helps to break down those walls, and do that, and helps to increase visibility. We were really happy with the results we had with you on our first investment, which is literally breaking ground in a couple weeks, and we are very excited to work with you again on the Eastern Avenue Project.
Eve Picker: That’s great. You’re going to have to send me updates on the first one, because we’ll post them for our other investors. People like to see [cross talk].
Adrian Washington: We’ll send you groundbreaking pictures. How about that?
Eve Picker: That’d be fantastic, yeah. Talking about this little piece of community engagement – crowdfunding – community engagement has to play a big role in your projects. I’m wondering how you handle that. That can be tricky sometimes.
Adrian Washington: It can be tricky. Like I said, there’s just a lot of distrust around development, and in our political climate, I think there’s just [riding] distrust in everything, so I don’t take it personally. I think the key is you’ve got to be out there early and often. We’re working a different project, in a different part of the city, and we’re a couple years away from groundbreaking; really a year away from an actual serious design and engagement, but we’re already out there in the community, asking people what they want, telling them about ourselves, letting them see some of our other projects.
Adrian Washington: You’re never going to please 100 percent of the people in any community. What I’ve found over years is that what you can do is the best you can do, which is to be accessible, be transparent, to listen, to be honest. Sometimes, people want something, you’re like, “Yeah, we can do that.” Other times, people want something, and I’ve seen a lot of developers be vague and sort of say, “Oh, well, maybe we’ll look at that.” I try to be honest; I try to say that, “Sir, ma’am, we just can’t do that, and here’s the reason why. I know you won’t be happy about that,” but I think it’s more important to be honest than it is to try to gloss over a problem.
Adrian Washington: It really takes a lot of work. It’s changed over the years. 20 years ago, we didn’t have to do nearly this level of community involvement. I think, particularly in underserved neighborhoods, that people were happy that you were just there and building something; pretty much, you didn’t have to do more than that. Nowadays, it’s different. People realize that their neighborhoods are an asset, and that people want to develop there, and they are demanding to be heard and respected. If you’re not there, you don’t hear them, you don’t respect them, you’re gonna suffer for it.
Eve Picker: Yeah, I think that’s right. Moving on to more global themes, here, I’m just wondering what you think we all need to do to make our cities and neighborhoods better places for everyone, so that no one gets left out.
Adrian Washington: That’s a big question-
Eve Picker: It is a big question.
Adrian Washington: -I don’t know if we can solve that all in one podcast. I’ll focus on our roles as developers. Clearly, there is a need for more housing in our cities. There’s a need for housing that serves all different income levels and all different family types. It’s not the ’50s anymore. It’s not just mom and dad, and 2.3 kids, and a picket fence. There are all types of households.
Adrian Washington: The development process has gotten tougher. Besides the community involvement piece, the environmental and sustainability requirements are much higher, the zoning is trickier. It’s hard work. I think our job is to use the skills that we’ve developed over the years to work in partnership with communities, to let them see how they can help us, and, in turn, using our skills to help them work on win-win solutions; involve government, because, obviously, they’re important, and have patience, but have perseverance. Development is tough.
Adrian Washington: I think that to be successful, you’ve got to have a long-term view. You can’t feel like you’ve got to make a killing on every project. You’ve got to look at your entire body of work, so at the end of the day, at the end of your career that you’ve made a fair return on your investment, your time, and your risk, but you’ve also contributed to society. I think it’s possible, if you have those things in mind. Honestly, it’s more rewarding and it’s more successful, if you do it that way.
Eve Picker: Clearly, you think socially responsible real estate is necessary in today’s development world, and that’s the way you manage your business, but I’m wondering, are there enough developers out there thinking about impact and thinking in the way that you’re thinking? If not, how might we improve that? I still see a lot of greenfield developments that, quite frankly, shock me in this day and age; that that sort of work continues. I still see banks wanting to finance those models over and over again, because it’s easy to think about them. I’m wondering how we shift to a [kinder] development world.
Adrian Washington: I think it certainly is growing. I agree with you completely. I drive around, particularly when I’m not in D.C., and I see so many greenfield developments. Just to me, personally, it’s just kind of boring. I didn’t get into this just to make a ton of money. Like I said, I want to be fairly compensated for what I do, but it’s more about that.
Adrian Washington: To answer your question, I think I see more and more of it. I think, particularly the younger generation … I’m older. I’m not a millennial. I guess I’m a young baby boomer. But, particularly in the generation behind me, I see people who want to do that, and not just in real estate development, but in other fields in life. They want to do more than just do a job and make money. They want to make a meaningful impact on the world. They want to have that reward, which helps them feel better.
Adrian Washington: Also, what I’ve found in my business, is it helps to attract and retain young employees. They don’t want to just build some cookie-cutter, 200-unit apartment building in a greenfield, just like everybody else. They want to do projects that are creative, that involve different financing sources, that touch people’s lives, that take challenges [cross talk] and from a business standpoint. I think it’s a movement that is slow in coming, but I clearly see it’s building, and I think it’ll be more and more.
Eve Picker: Yeah, I think you’re probably right that it’s gradually building. Do you see any current trends in real estate that you’re fascinated by or you think are going to make a difference moving forward?
Adrian Washington: Yeah, I see … Clearly, the trend for co-living and coworking is the big trend. WeWork is obviously the big kind of corporate behemoth example of that, but there are a lot of other smaller, more entrepreneurial types of interests. I’ve see coworking spaces designed around women, or women with kids that have daycare centers, or people with social causes, like a nonprofit type of thing. I see that as a big trend.
Adrian Washington: I see co-living. I think that where people, either because of monetary reasons, or because of social reasons, don’t want that house by themselves, but want an opportunity where they can either live with roommates or live in a more communal environment, where things like kitchens and things are shared, and where there’s a social network in place that typically people who are new to an area- it’s a way for them to connect. I see a real sort of striving for more connectedness, as our world, in a way, becomes less connected. I think there are great opportunities to expand on that model. I’ve seen some very successful ones here in Washington, D.C., so it’s something I’m keeping my eye on.
Eve Picker: Yeah, I think a lot of people are. I’m going to ask you three signoff questions that I ask everyone. The first one is what is the key factor that makes a real estate project impactful to you?
Adrian Washington: I’d say the key factor is that it meets the needs of the community that it’s in. The only way you get that is to get out, and talk to the people there, and understand what they want. Some communities, they want more affordable housing. Some people, they want less. Some people want retail that’s a particular type; other people might want a retail that’s missing, like, say, a Fresh Grocer, which is like an example of another project that we did. We put in a Fresh Grocer where it’d been a food desert. It really involves talking to the community, understanding what they want, and then using your skills to develop- to deliver it.
Eve Picker: When it comes to crowdfunding, do you think there are other things that can help you as a developer, not just involving investors, but how might crowdfunding benefit your project, as a whole?
Adrian Washington: I think crowdfunding benefits us in a number of ways. The couple that most come to mind – and I [inaudible] an example earlier for one of our projects – is many people in the neighborhood become investors in the projects. They’re invested not just financially, but they’re invested emotionally. They tell their friends; they frequent there more often. I think the crowdfunding helps allow, particularly, local residents to be involved.
Adrian Washington: I think the second way that that’s really helped us and helped the project is that it’s a real brand builder. Eve, when we did the project with you guys, we got so many press kits about the project. We were [cross talk].
Eve Picker: That’s fabulous. That’s really fabulous.
Adrian Washington: I was interviewed a couple of times at the local news station, I was interviewed by national publications. People that I would- said “Hey, I heard about your project. What’s crowdfunding like, and how do you like it? It just really enhanced our company’s visibility, our project’s visibility; it was a real brand enhancer, and it’s something that I did not expect and something I was very pleased with.
Eve Picker: I’m grateful to hear that. That’s wonderful. Then, this is a really big one – if there were one thing that you could change about real estate development in the U.S. to make it better, what would that be?
Adrian Washington: I think that the thing that I would really change is not so much government policies. I understand the need for regulation around safety, and sustainability, and community impact, but I would change more the attitude of the people in government who do those. I think there is too much of a – particularly in inspections – ‘gotcha’ mentality, where, instead of working with us, and understanding that we’re doing the best we can … Yes, maybe this one particular light switch was two inches too high or too low-
Eve Picker: Oh …
Adrian Washington: Not just a ‘gotcha’ mentality, not just, “Okay, you messed up on that. Fix it, and we’ll come back when we’re ready and tell you whether you missed anything else,” more a partnership for governments to understand that we’re good guys. We’re doing the best we can; that we want a safe project, a sustainable project, and to work more cooperatively with us, and help us succeed as partners, and not to be adversaries.
Eve Picker: That’s a great way to end this interview. So, Adrian, thank you very much for your time. I really enjoyed talking with you, and I’m sure we’re going to be talking again.
Adrian Washington: Great, Eve. Thanks for having me.
Eve Picker: That was Adrian Washington. Adrian is not afraid of a challenge. His company focuses on challenging sites in challenging neighborhoods, always making sure that neighborhood folks are involved and that their neighborhood is improved by the final project. I love that Adrian finds greenfields boring. I love that he sees the people in a neighborhood first, and I love that he nurtures local businesses, bringing even more value to the projects he develops.
Eve Picker: You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access the Shownotes for today’s episode at my website, EvePicker.com. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities. Thanks so much for spending your time with me today, and thank you, Adrian, for sharing your thoughts with me. We’ll talk again soon, but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.