Because of the foundation they laid, Northern Virginia has become one of the richest and fastest-growing economies in the country. Northern Virginia is finally getting some of the money and attention it deserves from the state government down in Richmond. Tysons Corner, Reston and the Dulles Corridor were developed. Metro was built out into the suburbs. Dulles Airport was transformed from an isolated airport into a thriving domestic and international hub. And George Mason, where I now teach, has become the largest public university in the state and one of the up-and-coming state universities in the country.
These days, however, the 123 Club (which takes its name from the nearby state highway) is a pale shadow of its former self, lacking an agenda, strong leadership or a membership that packs much political clout. And in that respect, it is not unlike most of the other business organizations in the Washington region, including the Federal City Council in the District and the Greater Washington Board of Trade, whose ambition and influence have declined over the past decade.
In many ways, these organizations have become victims of their own success, having achieved what an earlier generation of leaders set out to accomplish 30 years ago. Many of our remaining problems — too much growth, wages and property values that are uncompetitive, too many high-skilled jobs that are unfilled — are the sort of high-class problems that most other regions would love to have. Without the urgency created by some crisis or long-term decline, business leaders have been free to focus their time, energy and money on building their own companies.
There are other reasons for the vacuum in business leadership in the region.
In the past, the backbone of these organizations were the presidents of local banks, utilities, retailers, construction firms and real estate owners and developers, along with the managing partners of the big local law firms. Because of two decades of mergers and acquisitions, however, many of the biggest homegrown companies have been bought up by out-of-town firms mostly either based elsewhere or whose leaders have no roots in region.
Meanwhile, the other big companies that have remained here or moved into the region have become so big and so national and global in their reach that their top executives have little time or instinct to get involved in regional economic issues. Such issues tend to be left to regional managers or vice presidents for external affairs who lack the visibility or the ability to commit their organizations to difficult or controversial initiatives.