An all-day conference of corporate executives in Montgomery County last Friday eventually could become a model for business people and local governments in other area jurisdictions.
Sponsored by the county's economic advisory council, the conference inaugurated a long-range program designed to assist the public sector in coping with several critical issues during the next decade.
The economic base in affluent Montgomery County remains strong, and jobs there are expected to grow faster than in other parts of the Washington region.
However, forecasts developed by county officials and data recently released by the Bureau of the Census indicate Montgomery will experience significant demographic changes by the year 2000.
For example, the pace of population growth in the county slowed during the 1970s, and forecasts point to continued decline. At the same time, there will probably be a slower employment growth rate, smaller household size and a slightly older population.
Meanwhile, demographically and geographically, the county has become two entities within one. Planners refer to them as the "mature urban/suburban area" near the District and the "new suburban growth area" of upper Montgomery County.
Those and similar developments have prompted corporate executives in Montgomery County to examine the implications for economic development and the general quality of life.
Thus, in their first "consensus conference," about 70 corporate executives resolved to assume greater responsibility in assisting the public sector to solve problems that are likely to have an impact on the county in the '80s.
One participant said the conference also provided an opportunity for a "cross-fertilization of ideas" among business officials. "I found it interesting hearing about perceptions and problems other companies have," he said.
Generally, business advisory groups tend to focus on single issues associated with economic development. In a unique approach, for this area at least, the Montgomery County Economic Advisory Council has focused on a broad range of issues that affect county life, economic activity and government service.
And, while most local jurisdictions push business attraction as the primary focus of their economic development programs, Montgomery County has placed a great deal more emphasis on business expansion and retention. That thrust has forged a strong partnership between local government and the business community.
"As reasonable people and businessmen, we want to be in a position to respond other than during a crisis," one executive explained.
Corporate executives representing the spectrum of business and industry in Montgomery County met with officials and educators for more than eight hours last Friday to examine the issues and propose solutions.
When it was over, there seemed to be a consensus that the primary concerns--"if not problems," as one executive put it--lie in education, transportation, the work force and housing.
Although Montgomery County's school system is considered one of the nation's best, the conference agreed that the system should be changed to "meet the needs of the future and not stick with some fixed set of notions."
Specifically, the executives said the system should increase the complement of math and science instruction, not so much to prepare students for employment in high-technology firms in the county, but to help them function in a more sophisticated environment.
County officials were advised to make the investment in education despite declining resources "even if it means increasing taxes."
In the meantime, however, "There's a need to get industry off the dime and working with educational institutions at all levels," declared one executive. Accordingly, one recommendation called for an exchange program in which corporate managers spend several days in high schools and colleges while guidance counselors make similar visits to learn more about the workplace.
A "real test" in the county is matching workers from an adequate labor force with the available jobs, one executive noted. Another objective is providing for more of the work force to live in the county.
One executive suggested that means county residents should abandon some rigid notions of "what housing design ought to be and how we ought to live in this county."
And he warned, "If you don't provide affordable housing, workers will have to live in Prince George's County or elsewhere."
But if substantial numbers of workers must commute to the county, and, indeed, if the county is to develop further, its transportation network will have to be improved, conferees agreed.
"We in the business community have got to raise our sights. These transportation problems being raised now will be worse in five years," warned one official.
Now that the issues have been raised, the advisory council will suggest to county officials how the corporate community can help resolve them.