It’s Worse Than You Thought . . . but maybe better too

It’s Worse Than You Thought . . . but maybe better too

This morning, three community leaders predicted Montgomery County’s future, and at first it was scary. But then they kept talking, and there’s a lot of potential to do better in the future. MoCo has many advantages, and smart leadership capitalizing on those can lead to brighter futures for many county residents.

The messages today were jolting: Job losses in the recession were unprecedented, and the recovery is generating jobs which aren’t going to help Montgomery County the way some predict. The underlying problem is that the County doesn’t have enough housing for the workers it really needs. Rather than helping ease congestion, keeping the number of housing units low will just force more workers to drive long distances, further clogging the roads. It’s the conundrum of the day: slow growth policies don’t clear roads; they cause sprawl which clogs roads more. But there was an interesting answer, coming from speakers with different perspectives: the solution to both the jobs and transportation problems lies in New Urbanism. Putting necessities nearby each other, in communities centered on transit, can both draw in the good jobs that the County needs, and ease transportation problems. In other words, design communities so cars aren’t needed and everyone benefits. Everyone this morning praised the White Flint Sector Plan as a bold step in the right direction.

Speakers

(L-R: Speakers at today’s session: Prof. Stephen Fuller, Montgomery Council President Nancy Floreen, and Jim Dinegar, Washington Board of Trade)

This morning’s session was the third in Friends of White Flint’s “Speakers’ Series” of events discussing New Urbanism, smart growth and planning for a sustainable, walkable, transit-oriented future. The session, hosted by the White Flint Partnership, and co-sponsored by Friends of White Flint and the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, was held in the auditorium at Dave & Buster’s in White Flint Mall.

Today’s topic was “Jobs” and the session was moderated by Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen, a White Flint area resident. Floreen has made economic development a centerpiece of her term as Council President and she explained why today: “On average, the number of jobs in Montgomery County has decreased by 13,000. This is the highest unemployment we’ve ever measured here. Connect the dots: our income tax revenue is down by $30 million, and that makes it even harder to address all our citizens’ needs. We need to focus on jobs. We have an obligation to our kids to deliver the good jobs. We have an obligation to create a sense of place, and to share the tax burden.”

Nancy Floreen

Floreen then introduced Prof. Stephen Fuller, of George Mason University, and Director of the Center for Regional Analysis: “We bring in Stephen Fuller to give governments common sense. He’s the Director of Thinking for the region.” And Fuller did just that for the next hour.

Stephan Fuller

“The recession is actually over,” Fuller noted, and “we’re eight months into the recovery. We lost a lot of jobs during the recession. 25,000 jobs. Montgomery County job losses were proportionately higher than much of the region. That says something about the jobs that are here.”

Then Fuller talked about the kind of jobs which were lost, and the kind of jobs the slow recovery will generate: “there’s a mismatch between the skills of the unemployed and the jobs we’re going to create. Typically, those who lost jobs had lower levels of education and special skills that don’t transfer well to other jobs. It’s going to be harder to reabsorb those into the employment market. We’re adding higher end jobs in health care, education and professional services. The Federal government is the main driver of that, and we’re drawing younger people from other parts of the country. It all makes it harder for people here to get back into the workforce.”

Fuller analyzed job growth projections for the region and Montgomery County for the next ten years: “Current forecasts show Montgomery County jobs growing, but at a slowing rate. The County will grow more slowly than the metropolitan region average. Fairfax County jobs growth will be twice as fast, and as a result, Montgomery County’s economy is becoming a smaller part of the region. We are losing share.” In addition, Fuller noted, “the kind of jobs we will be adding do not pay as much as the jobs that are here now. Wage growth in Montgomery County will increase 21%, but in the region as a whole, wages will increase 23%.”

“Montgomery County is becoming below average,” Fuller predicted. “The average salary in Montgomery County will be $16,000 less than in Fairfax County, and $5,000 less than in the whole region.”

The issue, Fuller projected, is that Montgomery County is not going to get the “high value jobs.” The County will get lots of “local jobs: service, retail, legal. We need those jobs, but they have a salary that’s about half of other jobs. An average salary of $35,000.”

Lots of discussion of why, but the bottom line reason: housing costs. Montgomery County is not providing enough housing even for the jobs we are projecting. “We will fill only two-thirds of our job growth. We will have to bring in workers from other places, and that means traffic on 270. And all of this is exacerbated by the 25% of people who live here who are going to retire in the next twenty years. A lot of them aren’t going to move, but we’ll have to find people to fill their jobs. We can’t grow our own job force fast enough, and those workers will have to come from somewhere. We will need a lot more housing than is being talked about.”

Fuller then linked the White Flint Sector Plan to the jobs problems: “What is being proposed in White Flint, we need to think of it as a whole community. The counties that have the housing are going to have the jobs; that’s the link between housing and economic growth. We know it, but we don’t act like we know it. Local governments want the jobs, but they don’t want the people. Who’s going to do the work? That’s the best argument for smart growth. More housing with more jobs, but put them where we have the infrastructure. More solutions in different places. Take traffic and demand off those places that can’t handle it, and redistribute how we work and play. We can’t afford to bring workers in from elsewhere; we have them here already. Upgrade our resident workforce so they can have the better jobs. House our workers and make them smarter. That’s what we want to do in White Flint.”

“We can do better. We have strategic assets. We have the underground Red Line already. The White Flint Plan is a great example of what can be done. The kind of thinking tied up in the Plan frightens some people because it’s different, but it’s exactly on target for correcting what’s been holding the County back.”

Council President Floreen then pointed out that deciding “are we an urban or a suburban community is the political balancing act we do every day. What’s the sustainable job balance that pays for the quality of life we want?” She then introduced Jim Dinegar, President of the Washington Board of Trade, the regional business association.

Jim Dinegar

Dinegar discussed the “big picture”, including regional opportunities. “That’s what White Flint has: opportunities for people who don’t live here.” He noted that you don’t always want to look at “the next big shiny thing,” and sometimes it’s better to focus on your local strengths already in place. After discussing the traditional area focus on biotechnology, anchored by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, he predicted that “green industries” would be a growing opportunity for the metropolitan region, as would “cyber-security” and hospitality.

Dinegar then turned to New Urbanism and planned growth. “Taking advantage of the Metro is a big deal. Arlington, Courthouse Square and Silver Spring: they all work because of the Metro. And they will help Metro get stronger. White Flint can be a revitalized center that establishes a community by addressing the strengths already there. It’s multi-generational, which is a big deal these days. And it addresses what people want. Boulevards, not highways.” In answer to a question about attracting new business to the area, Dinegar pointed out that “the White Flint effort isn’t to attract Northrop Grumman, it’s to do better here. You have to look to your existing big companies, your anchors. Have you shown them the love? They don’t want to hear just about their competitors; this is their home. Encourage them to be local as well. Know they exist, and let them know you exist.”

Questions

 Floreen then returned to the White Flint Plan, saying “we have some dopey rules that make it hard to develop around Metro and we’ll be dealing with that on White Flint. It’s challenging. it’s hard to do. The great thing about the White Flint initiative is that there’s a real partnership here, understanding the cost and sharing. That’s unprecedented in Montgomery County.”

And Dinegar jumped in to offer a very New Urban outlook: “the idea in White Flint is to have centralized activities so you won’t need lots of ways to get there. Have everything in one place. The beauty of the Plan is that it defines that there’s a there there. I’m all for different transit opportunities, but it’s better if there’s everything here, and you only need to get a few other places once in a while.”

Earlier Floreen said she was “pleased with the scheduling for the White Flint Plan. Next week we’re going to start work in the full County Council. The staging plan is the most complicated part of this conversation: you have to have benefits that make sense fiscally. By the middle of March, we’ll make a decision one way or another.”

At the end of the session, Francine Waters, from the White Flint Partnership, predicted another Speakers’ Series event in late spring.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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