How to Get Montgomery County “Back on Track”

How to Get Montgomery County “Back on Track”

There’s been a flurry of economic-development-related news in the last few days. Most of it is great and on the right track, but there’s a missing final point that needs to be addressed. First the good news: Montgomery County Councilmember and newly-elected Council President Nancy Floreen wrote in the Gazette that “Without question, my top priority as County Council president will be to restart our economic engine and make sure it stays ignited.”

Floreen announced that she would propose “a completely new Economic Development Authority, on a magnitude and design that has not been aggressively pursued before in Montgomery County. Dire times require bold solutions. We need an infusion of new investments. We need to stabilize certain vital sectors, like retail and the construction industries. We need the banking community to reliably supply capital to small businesses. We need to partner with the federal and state governments for building-block grants in such growth areas as health care, IT and energy. Our universities need to align their research and applied enterprises with the county’s long-term economic development priorities. We have to formulate workable enterprise zones for maximizing the entrepreneurial spirit. And our scientific laboratories should be ahead of the curve in uncovering the next wave of cutting-edge and market-ready technology. Fundamentally, I am talking about a public-private partnership, which leverages the best minds, resources and institutions — all aimed at springboarding our economy forward.”

You can read Floreen’s op-ed here: http://www.gazette.net/stories/01062010/montlet174744_32548.php

A few posts ago, I talked about how the County was slipping behind its neighbors in attracting just the kind of new businesses and business investment Floreen would like to see. The Gazette responded to Floreen’s proposal with an editorial on the same subject:

 [Floreen’s] proposal for a new economic development authority should help raise awareness about a boiling-over anxiety among business leaders that the county is slipping behind competitors when it comes to attracting companies (and jobs). However, without a clear focus and the right people in key positions, the proposal will amount to little more than a rebranding of existing efforts. Floreen said she is accepting ideas from the business community as to how the authority could be developed and envisions one similar to agencies in Prince William and Fairfax counties in Northern Virginia. Council member Mike Knapp also plans to introduce some form of a biotech tax credit, which should help attract business. One question is whether these efforts are too late for the eventual recovery.

.     .     .     .      .

Growth — Two major growth plans are coming up a vote. The White Flint Sector Plan should be ready by February and will outline development, including thousands of homes, for the next 30 years near the White Flint Metro Station. (On a side note, council member Duchy Trachtenberg plans to introduce a bill that would mandate oversight of the implementation of redevelopment projects like White Flint).

You can read the full Gazette editorial, which covered several other points on the Council agenda as well, here:

http://www.gazette.net/stories/01062010/montedi174744_32547.php 

So, everyone’s thinking about the same things: how do we help our less-fortunate (including the newly- and long-term unemployed), balance our budgets, invest in the infrastructure, cut our carbon emissions, and do all the other things we’d like to see in our public sector, while at the same time, bring in the money to do that. Lots of people want the County to do lots of new things — great things, welcome things, really neat things — but it’s really hard to see how to bring in new money for those new things. Otherwise, you’re just robbing Peter to pay Paul. Somebody else thinks the money you’d take away to pay for your great things will cost them the opportunity to do their own great things. So you need new money to do new things. And the new money is best gotten from people who voluntarily enter our community, not those struggling to stay here against ever-rising costs and seemingly-shrinking assets.

So we want to bring in those new people who want to join our community. But so do all the other communities facing the same budget woes. Some of them have done well recently. Hilton Hotels is moving to Tyson’s Corner; Volkswagen to Herndon. A huge percentage of new agencies and businesses have been setting down roots in the burgeoning, but transit-oriented Ballston-Rosslyn corridor of Arlington County (I know, in part, because I go to an increasing number of business-related meetings there). General Dynamics has its headquarters in Northern Virginia. On the other hand, Lockheed Martin is already here in Montgomery County, in North Bethesda, to be exact.

And just yesterday another big opportunity (or test) popped up. Defense contracting giant Northrop Grumman announced that it would move its headquarters from Los Angeles to the Washington, D.C. area. That’s logical, since its biggest customer is the federal government. But where to plant that new space? Montgomery County would love to have Northrop join Lockheed, and is actively courting the relocation.

Here are stories from the Washington Post and Gazette on the efforts:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/04/AR2010010402643.html?sub=AR

http://www.gazette.net/stories/01042010/businew174445_32564.php

There isn’t a lot of time for the County to ponder Floreen’s proposal if it wants to influence this decision; Northrop will make its decision in just a few months. But it shows that she’s on the right track.

On the other hand, there is a missing element here. After all, just imagine the pitch to a Los Angeles-based company: “yeah, we have just the sprawl and crawl you have in L.A. Do you like the San Diego Freeway? Well, you have the 405 freeway, we have 495, the Beltway.” Isn’t that enticing? Not to anyone who’s tried to get to LAX on a busy weekday. “Oh, and that new light rail that LA just built? We haven’t got one of those yet, but we’re thinking about it.” “You’re THINKING about it?” “Um, yeah, we have great plans.”

If you want to attract companies who want walkable communities, you have to build one. Not just think about it. Wouldn’t that pitch go SO much better if we could say: “Yeah, we’re on the cutting edge of community design. We have an award-winning plan for a new community which is walkable, sustainable, and transit-oriented. And we are committed to making it work. We’re going to make it happen. Here are the ways we’re going to be sure that it gets built. Come here and you’ll be part of a brand-new community.” 

So what’s missing? The confidence that the County will actually grow those marvelous plans into reality. I’ve had this conversation with the County Executive and with Councilmembers: everybody likes the Plan, but is scared to death that the County won’t do what it says. Just like the 1992 Master Plan said great things, but gave us lovely Rockville Pike. 

This isn’t all that hard to fix. We have the perfect opportunity right here, and it’s in front of the Council right now. Perfect timing. Let’s get the County to commit to the White Flint Plan — in a way that can be measured and monitored over time — and use it to begin to attract those new companies. Commitment and follow-through, that’s the real need here.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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