Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest, most-educated, and best-run counties in the country. Its far-sighted self-sacrifice of preserving a huge amount of green and open space as part of the “agricultural reserve” won numerous awards and is a crown jewel in the County. The County is in the midst of considering one of the most innovative “New Urbanism” master plans for development — the award-winning White Flint Sector Plan.
Yet doubts remain, on many fronts, about where Montgomery County is going, and how it will get there. This week, two county leaders posed the same question in different publications. In the Sentinel, newly-elected County Council President Nancy Floreen said that she was mulling a new “economic development authority” to get Montgomery County back on track. “Nothing else works unless we have a vibrant, dynamic economy and right now, we don’t.” Floreen told the Sentinel, citing a rising unemployment rate in the County. She and incoming Vice-President Valerie Ervin will be presenting their new proposals to the Council when it reconvenes in January. The Sentinel article is available here: http://www.thesentinel.com/mont/NewCouncilPrez.
Meanwhile, another Councilmember, George Leventhal, has an op-ed in the Gazette on the future of MoCo. Leventhal, a no-nonsense speaker who hasn’t been seen as much in the White Flint debates, raises the same points as his colleagues in a different way: “There are many economic factors that are beyond county government’s control, including the banking crisis, trade imbalances, globalization of industry and more. But one area where we have significant influence is in the direction of our Planning Board, which has substantial say in which jobs are generated and how rapidly.” Leventhal wrote in the Gazette. Leventhal pointed out that the Council will be filling two seats on the Planning Board within the next year:
As I weigh who will earn my vote to fill upcoming Planning Board seats, the following questions will be paramount for me:
– Do applicants understand that we can no longer take for granted that Montgomery County is a magnet for investment?
– Are applicants willing to see economic development as part of the Planning Board’s role and to work toward a more effective partnership with the executive and council to generate jobs and restore our county’s economic health?
– Will applicants commit to streamlining and expediting project approvals, even as we continue to provide ample opportunity for public input?
Every branch of county government must focus on the jobs crisis. If we fail to do so, the debate in coming years will no longer be how to manage our growth, as it has been in the past, but rather how to stem our decline.
You can read Leventhal’s Gazette op-ed here:
These are not typical ruminations for Montgomery officials. They sound downbeat, even slightly alarmed. But they may be justified.
Recently news stories have looked at how government agencies and major employers are flocking to Arlington’s New Urbanism renewal areas, while Montgomery County gets some perfunctory looks and some left-over military base realignments. Brave talk of requiring new development projects to include community amenities is met by choruses of “the market won’t support that” from the beleagured private sector. “Vacancy” and “For Lease” signs dominate commercial areas. During public hearings on the White Flint Sector Plan, architectural and engineering firms pleaded for help, not for the projects they were preparing, but for their lay-offs, job losses and inability to get construction permits through the County bureaucracy, sometimes for nine years or more. Young, well-dressed, and accomplished people — the future of the County — testified they were looking for work.
Has MoCo’s “paralysis by analysis” or its legendary permitting shuffle finally put the County so far behind the curve that the recession kicked its feet out from under it? Always in the past, the County’s quality of life and proximity to power (and government money) have insulated the local economy from the worst variabilities of the economy. Perhaps not this time.
I worked in community-based economic development, part of the 1970’s anti-poverty effort, so that may color my perceptions, but I’m not sure that this new situation is that difficult to understand. And these three Councilmembers may be the right ones to pick it up. What appears to be different this time is not so much the vision or the bureaucracy. The vision, and the mechanisms which craft it, remain bright, as shown by the breadth of the White Flint Plan. Floreen’s a former planner, and knows how to look past the surface. The bureaucracy may be worse than before, but only marginally so, if war-stories of the past are to be believed. Leventhal, past his acerbic sound bites, seems to want to kick tail and take names of bureaucrats. At the White Flint hearings, Ervin absorbed the Friends of White Flint “New Urbanism” testimony in seconds, zeroing in on the carbon vs. traffic message we were presenting and discussing development in Arlington in that context and with an eye toward transferring the experience to Montgomery.
What is different now is that there are other options. With the decline of the Web booms in the Virginia exurbs came an opportunity for Montgomery to step up. But the bio-tech industry the County was counting on doesn’t seem to have the same caloric explosiveness for Montgomery that AOL and its spawn provided to Northern Virginia. Now is the time to examine why.
Arlington, in particular, has overtaken Fairfax or Loudoun Counties as a principal competitor to Montgomery. Given the nature of the slow recovery, the principal economic drivers will be those agencies and employers who are flocking to the transit-oriented communities along the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor. The County must, in short, welcome, not halt, new development, especially the kind of stable economic interests who support sustainable growth, instead of seeking massive “campuses” and highway sprawl.
It’s good to see three of the County’s leaders thinking about these issues, and recognizing that we can have a growing economy, one which entices stable and productive jobs, without sacrificing our environment. Let’s compare the County Executive’s reaction to the Council’s, at least on the White Flint Plan: the Executive (it’s not just Executive Ike Leggett himself; it’s a whole group of Executive branch officials) thinks its job is to “raise the questions.” That’s important, but the Council, at least those writing this week, think it would be better to propose solutions. And that is the better approach, even if it is more risky for the ones who propose solutions; nothing is easier than to snipe.
But even that kind of leadership is not enough today. What is needed is not necessarily the ideas; those appear to have surfaced already. What will cement the County’s future is the follow-through; the ability to deliver on the promises. That’s always been the issue in recent years. It’s the reason the 1992 Master Plan for White Flint failed; grand ideas, never implemented. That’s what drives much of the opposition to the White Flint Plan: a fundamental fear that the County will promise big, but not perform. And, in large part, it is what gives agencies and businesses eyeing Montgomery as a possible new home, more than a little pause.
And that, quite frankly, implicates the Executive. The Council sets policy. The Executive implements it. I have no doubt that they can do so, but will they?
Let’s hope our new Council leaders keep their eyes on the ball. We don’t need lots of new ideas; we have those. What we need is to build confidence that we will actually get things done. In a word, commitment.