Commentary: D.C. has stood strong despite the downturn, and education reform is key to meeting future challenges

By Adrian M. Fenty
Monday, August 2, 2010

Four years ago, I ran for mayor on a promise to transform the District of Columbia into a world-class city. An exceptional public education system and a skilled workforce are critical to that vision. We've made incredible strides during the last four years, and we are going to double down on those efforts during the next term.

Despite the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, we've created thousands of jobs, financed 11,000 units of affordable housing and spent more than $1 billion rebuilding our schools, community centers, parks and waterfronts. Ten thousand new residents moved to the District last year, the largest one-year population gain since World War II. We are ranked the top real estate market in the country for foreign investment and top destination for talented young professionals. Investors from Helsinki to Abu Dhabi are lining up to inject capital into our premier development projects.

My job is to ensure this prosperity continues and see that it is shared by residents in every corner of the city. Nearly every critical indicator -- from housing prices to tax collections -- shows the District outpacing almost every city, yet our unemployment rate remains stubbornly high.

In the past, politicians would have tapped a blue ribbon panel for a hefty report that would just end up collecting dust on a shelf. We can't afford that approach today.

Our economic development strategy foundation is based on a decade's worth of planning. Now is not the time for another task force. It is time for action. During the next four years, we will redouble our efforts to create jobs, rebuild our waterfront and infrastructure and promote the District as a 21st-century, globally competitive, sustainable city.

A scarcity of employment opportunity is not our problem. There are 400,000 more jobs in the District than there are residents to fill them. Yet in some neighborhoods, 25 percent of our residents are without work.

There is a staggering skills gap between the jobs we have and the skills of many of our residents. We are prepared to address this problem several ways. We are focused on expanding our retail, hospitality and construction industries where it is still possible to move from entry-level to management with hard work and ambition.

We are starting work on our convention center hotel, providing 2,000 hospitality and construction jobs. We are bringing 1,000 more to a Costco-anchored project in Fort Lincoln, 300 more with the CoStar Group's move from Bethesda and 200 more when New York's famed Carmine's opens a restaurant this month in the Penn Quarter. Ongoing projects such as the Southwest Waterfront, Hill East and old convention center site will bring thousands more.

We will also amplify our efforts to make sure our job training efforts are better aligned with the needs of the private sector, setting standards to track which training partners are delivering results. And we will strengthen our partnerships with labor, nonprofit and faith organizations as well as colleges and universities to prepare residents for jobs in emerging sectors.

As a region, our workforce is considered the most highly-skilled in the country. Reforming our education system is the key to ensuring our city's residents can compete for the opportunities around them.

Adrian M. Fenty (D) is mayor of the District of Columbia.

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