Indeed, the past success of groups like the 123 Group in Virginia and the Federal City Council in the District is that they were small groups of heavy-hitters operating largely behind the scenes. In my salad days, I was more than a little uncomfortable with the idea of a secret cabal of wealthy business executives muscling elected officials and dragooning other local institutions to push initiatives they thought would help their own businesses. Over the years, however, I’ve developed a rather healthy appreciation for the necessary and positive role such groups play.
The 2030 Group and the Chesapeake Crescent represent a start, but frankly their base of support is way too narrow in terms of geography (the “business community” of suburban Maryland remains largely a figment of the imagination) and sector (over-reliance on real estate developers). Their challenge — and they know it — is to take their efforts to the next stage by enlisting the support and involvement of a new generation of leaders of the region’s biggest corporations, universities, law firms and nonprofits who are willing to commit serious money and political muscle to accomplishing the hard things that everyone knows needs doing.
The list starts with a regional gas tax to support highway construction, Metro upgrades and expansion, new light-rail lines and express bus service and, yes, a new river crossing between Montgomery and Fairfax counties.
It includes a more regional approach to transportation management, including commuter trains that run from Prince William County to Baltimore through Union Station, the merger of the Baltimore-Washington and Washington airport authorities and regular fast-ferry service along the Potomac connecting Georgetown, the Southwest waterfront, Reagan National Airport, Alexandria and National Harbor.
It would entail an end to the counterproductive rivalries between Maryland and Virginia, and between Washington and Baltimore, that leads to bidding wars for corporate headquarters, federal facilities and foreign investment. A good place to start would be regional backing of a plan to move the FBI building from its unsightly fortress on Pennsylvania Avenue to a high-security campus in southern Prince George’s County. Another would be a joint effort between Montgomery and Fairfax counties to develop and market a collaborative biotech corridor.
Any strategy would certainly involve a regional approach to solving the regional skills match in which companies are forced to look elsewhere to fill most of their high-paying jobs while hundreds of thousands of local residents are unemployed or under-employed.
It would include a big push to wean the region off its over-reliance on government and government contracting by creating a vibrant commercial tech culture in the District and strengthening the competitive position of Baltimore as a port, an inter-modal cargo terminal and an efficient location for warehousing and light manufacturing.
And it would include a regional approach to housing and zoning to make it possible for more workers at all levels to find affordable housing and decent schools near to where they work rather than having to make the longest commutes on some of the most overcrowded roads in America.
The studies have been done. The local and regional governmental institutions are in place. The wealth has been created. What’s missing now is for the region’s top business leaders to make it happen.
I like the attitude taken by Beriah Wilkins, then-publisher of The Washington Post, in summoning the business elite to the red parlor of the Ebbitt House in 1889 to organize the city’s original Board of Trade. At the bottom of the letter he penned an addendum: “Do not fail to come.”
What’s your “big idea” for the future of the Washington regional economy? Send your thoughts . I’ll include as many as I can in the series’ final installment.