Its work force leads the nation, perhaps the world, in high-technology skills.
Booming, with unrivaled levels of commercial construction, its economy is unusually stable: one-fourth of its employable persons -- more than 750,000 -- are on government payrolls.
Its location is unmatched: as close to Tokyo as Kuwait, as close to Boston as Detroit, as close to Atlanta as Chicago.
It has three major airports handling approximately 1,200 daily flights and an international seaport with superb container and bulk-cargo facilities.
It is the home of the U.S. government of more than 140 embassies and legations, of global banking, insurance, associations and trade centers . . . the communications capital of the world . . . truly a unique market, set in the celebrated "land of pleasant living."
As well as any brief summary, the above statements -- all from a new tale of two cities published in booklet form by the Washington/Baltimore Regional Association, made up of businesses in the two areas that are promoting a common market -- tell an accurate story of the Washington region on the eve of the Republican/Ronald Reagan era.
Situated north of the Sun Belt and south of the Frost Belt, metropolitan Washington is an island of substantial economic health that defies easy characterization. It is neither a decaying northern industrial center nor a rapidly-growing urban area like those concentrated in the West and South.
Washington economist and former Federal Reserve Board governor Andrew Brimmer says the Washington area can expect continued but "limited" prosperity in 1981, with the changeover from the administration of Jimmy Carter to that of Reagan contributing "to a somewhat quicker pace of activity."
Brimmer & Co. has estimated that area-wide personal income will climb by 10.5 percent this year compared with 10.2 percent in 1980. The 1980 figure was a bit higher than the national average and the projected gain this year is lower than the estimated average national increase of 11.5 percent. This indicates the steady nature of the local economy, which did not suffer much from the recession. It marches on while the rest of the nation takes a step back.
Brimmer predicts continued expansion of employment here. Area jobs increased by 3.9 percent to about 1.6 million in 1980 and Brimmer is projecting another 3 percent increase this year. Overall, Brimmer says, the D.C. area "can look forward to a continuation of the high level of prosperity that has been evident for a number of years."
Yet there are symptoms of serious economic problems of the sort that have added up to real sickness in cities such as Cleveland and New York. The District government is pressed to the wall, fighting to keep services to its dwindling population intact with a tax base that is not growing, much less keeping pace with inflationary pressures on the city's budget.
Nearly all the area's new jobs last year and those projected for 1981 are in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, as the District's share of the local employment and business base continues to shrink. Brimmer notes that most new jobs require highly skilled workers, a trend that benefits the suburbs and points to the need for an improved D.C. school system, now facing another test of confidence in the wake of former superintendent Vincent Reed's surprise year-end retirement.
City employment also remains relatively high. Even the metropolitan-based subway system is struggling to halt a hemorrhage of operating deficits.
All the while, average Washingtonians live a life of relative affluence.
Of the nation's 18 major urban population centers, Washington has by far the highest average living standard, with Houston the runner-up. Prices here are about 8 percent above the urban norm, but average household income is a startling 39 percent above the U.S. urban average, according to recent Conference Board statistics.
Of all households in the D.C. area (1.1 million), about 35 percent have annual incomes that top $30,000, more than double the national average and evidence of the workaholic, pressure-cooker environment here.
Living standards in Dallas, Houston and Atlanta are higher than in most metropolitan areas, because living costs run 7-to-10 percent below the U.S. urban average. Household incomes also are higher in these Sun Belt centers than in most urban areas, but not as high as in Washington.
Then there is the Baltimore connection, perhaps the major long-term factor in the Washington economic picture and one that defies standard definitions of what comprises an urban market. Baltimore's standard of living also exceeds the national urban average, with lower prices than in Washington but without the average D.C. wages. Inexorably, these very different urban areas are drawing closer to one another, much as opposites attract.
Most Washington business leaders today want to throw up their hands when asked about the future, because it is not as evident as in the past that Washington has a recession-proof environment.
"One ventures a prediction about the course of the economy in these turbulent times with considerable humility, consoled in part by the knowledge that there is precedent for error," notes Riggs National Bank Chairman Vincent Burke Jr., who also is chairman of the Washington/Baltimore Regional Association.
If there is some hesitation about predicting the near-term future, however, there is no lack of confidence about the decade of the 1980s. Inflationary pressures are expected to remain, but most business leaders believe the cost spiral has peaked.
The new element in planning is the gradual attempt to link Baltimore and Washington, which adds risks to local business decisions. It is easier to deal with one market known and tried, especially when there has been satisfaction in the form of acceptable business volume and profitability.
But growth is important to aggressive, lively businesses and there is little prospect of substantial growth in population for either the Baltimore or Washington metropolitan area alone. Together, however, the two areas (and adjacent counties where growth has been substantial) add up to a major expanding urban complex.
Thus, hundreds of business decisions last year demonstrated the extent to which area corporations see their future in regional terms that extend many miles beyond the close-in Washington or Baltimore areas. Major marketing in the D.C. area by Loyola Federal, a Baltimore-based savings and loan association, and by the Baltimore Orioles baseball team (owned by Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams); Garfinckel's expansion into Annapolis, and Woodward and Lothrop's building plans in the Baltimore area; and D.C.-based American Cafe's new restaurant in downtown Baltimore are examples of this trend.
But there are several other developments last year that indicated an even broader movement to intertwine the economic futures of both cities. Among the key events:
Columbia-based Rouse Co. opened Harborplace in downtown Baltimore to a hoopla of balloons and national media attention. The retail and gastronomical complex transformed a waterfront no-man's-land into a carnival-like magnet that has attracted tourists and business ever since, with many of the dollars spent coming from the pockets of Washington-area residents.
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry Jr. traveled to Baltimore late last year to see for himself the revitalization that has occurred at Harborplace and in other sections of the port city. He seemed impressed particularly by what he saw as more cooperation between Baltimore Mayor William D. Schaefer's government and its business community, and he returned to the Federal City with a vow to intensify efforts to attrat blue-collar employers to vacant land in the District -- a campaign likely to begin this year if Congress approves industrial bond authority for the D.C. government.
Even before the mayors of Washington and Baltimore met to demonstrate a possible new era of mutual City Hall-District Building cooperation, key business leaders from the two cities launched last year the full common-market promotion that has been talked about for several years. Offices of the Washington/Baltimore Regional Association were opened in the two cities and initial research efforts and promotional materials have started to attract new employers to what is hailed as the fourth largest U.S. market (behind only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) -- with 5.5 million persons, 2 million households and annual retail sales of $22 billion.
Amtrak opened the nation's first combined railair facility near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a pioneering effort to permit travelers to avoid private cars when making travel plans. Both National and BWI airports can be reached by subway or train connections and futurists see the day when fast, comfortable and crowded trains will supplant the infrequent commuter trains between Union Station here and Pennsylvania Station in Baltimore.
As Sears, Roebuck regional chief J. Pat Galloway, the new president of the increasingly regional-minded Greater Washington Board of Trade, has stated: "The strongest comment that can be made about our programs (in 1981) is that they are those of a regional business association."
He has called for regional solutions to economic and political issues, including transit, employment, water supply and business development.
Galloway is speaking of a greater Washington area region that does not yet include Baltimore, which has its own local problems and where many business leaders are suspicious of the Washington business community and dedicated mainly to continued downtown rebirth.
But the common governmental and business issues in both metropolitan centers and the initial efforts at broader Washington-Baltimore economic cooperation and development hold out the possiblity that the two areas will become one in future decades in terms of an expanding base of jobs and taxes.