A new approach to economic development for the Metroplitan Washington area that emphasizes strengthening existing businesses rather than attracting new ones is being drafted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Tthe COG "economic development policies statement" is the first attempt to develop a unified business growth strategy for the District of Columbia and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Uniquely, the COG study downplays the standard economic development tactics of luring new business is with tax incentives, lowinterest loans and other special favors.

"Although economic development activities have traditionally focused on attracting industry from one region to another, recent research indicates that there is more to gain in terms of job generation by influencing where new firms locate and where existing firms chose to expand," the study says.

The latest research indicates "that few firms migratte from one area to another today as was the case in the 1950's." COG concludes.

Consequently the intergrovernmental group recommends that development programs "not concentrate on special incentives for a few favored firms."

The emphasis, instead, is on utilizing the strengths of the companies and economic resources that are already here.

As COG puts it, to "apply the ethic of conservation to economic development by saying that we must use our existing resources efficiently before exploiting new ones."

Translated into bricks and bond issues, that means rebuilding industrial areas of Washington rather than throwing up new business parks in suburbia, where more roads, utilities and transportation will be needed.

It means revitalizing shopping areas in downtown D.C. instead of building more malls.

It means encouraging factories to build in the city where there are people looking for work rather than in rural areas where workers have to be recruited.

It means, as COG puts it, "that the region should revitalize its older commercial areas, make the best use of its public facilities, promote the expansion of existing businesses and train its labor force so that individuals can work to their fullest potential."

COG's study does not dwell mch on energy issues, but the recent rerum of the 1973 Arab oil crisis adds an additional argument to the case for revitalizing, rebuildings and reviewing existing business, industrial and residential neighborhoods.

The priorities of businesses that are considering locating or expanding in an area are changings as well, it is argued.

"Recent studies have shown that tax rates, business costs and labor factors are not as important as 'quality of life' characteristics such as an area's crime level, adequacy of public facilities and services and the quality of public schools."

Citing research by the Joint Economic Committee on Fiscal and Intergovernmental Policy, the COG study says businesses today say their priorities, in order, are local governments attitudes toward business crime adequacy of public facilities market demands for prodcts or services quality of schools cultural attractions.

Applying those criteria to the District of Columbia makes clear that the city's underserved reputation as a high crime area is more of a deterent to business than its just-as-highly-criticized school system.

The area's cultural attractions, and public facilities, high-quality public services and strong market speak for themselves, but the question is how the city and region stack up on the most important factor.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has repeatedly stressed his interest in imporoving the business climate in Washington, while Fairfax and Prince George counties court business with two of the most aggressive development programs in the nation.

But whether the 15 local government members of COG can turn their 23-page manifesto for development into dollars and jobs remains to be seen.

The major constraints on development, the group contends, were the mismatch between job opportunities and the local labor pool -- both in the skills of available workers and where they live in relation to job sites -- and the limitations of water and air quality.

In addition to suggesting the future of the area's economy, COG also updates measurements of how the business of Washington has changed in this decade.

Since 1970, federal government employment has grown 12 percent, adding 38,200 jobs and swelling the U.S. government payroll to 358,000 persons.

The greatest growth is in the services sector of the economy, up by 42 percent as the result of hiring 90,400 persons since 1970.

One day last January, the COG study suggests, a restaurant in Fairfax or a dry cleaner in the District hired a new employe and the service sector surpassed the government as Washington's biggest employer.