It should have been the setting for combat, the meeting two weeks ago of these two traditional antagonists. The president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce was venturing into the hostile ranks of citizen-activists, at a meeting of the Allied Civic Group.
But when chamber President Ronald Resh braced for the tough audience questions, he found none of the expected barrage of accusations about business raping the county's green space or destroying Montgomery's genteel quality of life. Instead, the first questioner asked: "What is the county doing to attract more high-tech industry?"
In previous years, citizens group forums like that one would have been a harbinger of the kind of antibusiness, antidevelopment sentiment that for decades made Montgomery a pariah in the business community. Montgomery was the place where little old ladies in tennis shoes ran rampant, blocking building permits, packing planning board meetings, and even going to court to keep their spacious green acres from developing into a Crystal City.
But that scene before the Allied Civic Group reflects the changed attitude in Montgomery toward business. It is a change attributed in part to the soured national economy, with Montgomery's business community--especially the high-technology industries along the I-270 corridor--seen as the county's insulation against the kind of high unemployment and recession that battered less affluent jurisdictions.
It is a change attributed also to the business community's increased activism in county and community affairs. Meetings between citizens groups and business leaders are no longer limited to shouting matches at planning board meetings. Now, business and community groups are working together in areas not traditional to business, from providing legal aid to the poor, to coordinating a county response to the rising amount of racially motivated violence.
"The specter held up in past times was that over-commercialization and over-development would ruin the county," said James S. Culp, a Potomac Electric Power Co. vice president, who also chairs a county economic advisory council. "But business has shown that quality-of-life considerations can be preserved."
As one county government official put it, "Business leaders are participating more in the life of the county, beyond what affects their own pocketbooks.
Part of the changed attitude reflects the changing nature of the county's industrial base. Said Edmond F. Rovner, special assistant to the county executive, "In the 1950s and '60s, you were talking about the construction industry and the development industry. But the nature of industry in the county has changed. The industry that focused on how much housing you could squeeze in on an acre is no longer there. Now you drive along 270 and you see the so-called smokeless industries."
Also, in an atypical role for a Democratic politician, County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist has assiduously courted the business community--including giving businessmen key roles on county task forces--to the point where Gilchrist has been able to steal what would have been a natural vote-getting issue for his 1982 Republican opponent, businessman Joseph McGrath.
That last election campaign was noticeably void of any of the antidevelopment/prodevelopment schisms that marked past county political debates. In fact, the only antidevelopment sentiment of the campaign came from a small slate of old-line citizen-activists, who ran candidates for council seats after becoming distressed that all the mainstream Democratic Party candidates had abandoned their past antidevelopment rhetoric.
The county's new tolerance of and receptivity to business are reflected in the increased activism of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, the most visible and vocal spokesman for the county's business concerns. The chamber has formed an unlikely coalition with various citizen groups, including the Hispanic Coalition, to play a watchdog role as the county council sets out to rewrite and recodify the entire county code.
The chamber's expanded activities, and its stepped-up role in Montgomery political and community affairs, was symbolized by its move last week into more spacious offices in Rockville. At the ribbon-cutting, attended by Gilchrist and some council members, the room was full of talk about the chamber's heightened role as spokesman for the sprawling county's smaller, disparate local chambers of commerce.
"In the early 1970s, business was considered evil. There was a built-in animosity towards business and the private sector. Our response was to retreat into our shops and stores," said Resh.
The chamber's new activism, according to Pepco's Culp, "is due to the increased sophistication of business in the county, in realizing that there is a role for business in policy-making. The chamber somewhat reflects that attitude and is trying to involve itself in things business does not traditionally get involved in."
But even as the business community has opened a new rapport with the citizenry, that new activism has led to some nasty clashes and new tensions with the county council, Montgomery's independent-minded legislature headed by Council President David L. Scull. Those clashes have led to whispered accusations that the chamber is a tool of Gilchrist's in the Byzantine political alliances that make up Montgomery politics.
The business community, led by the chamber, first did battle with the council late last year, over Scull's proposal to provide civil, rather than the never-enforced criminal, penalties for minor violations of the county code. The chamber argued that the Scull proposal would give undue discretion to county code inspectors to issue citations to both citizens and businesses.
The chamber, in an unusual coalition with community groups, threatened a public referendum to overturn the Scull bill, and the council eventually backed off and severely modified the bill. It was the chamber's first and most visible venture into the political arena, and the business/community group coalition has stayed together to track the recodification of the county code.
The chamber has since come out strongly on a number of other key issues--blasting the council for cutting a position out of the county attorney's office, and later chastising the council for advocating an unusual county antitrust law to control Montgomery's cable television firm. The antitrust provision passed the council, and Gilchrist reluctantly signed it into law.
Resh, appearing before the council to oppose the cable antitrust law, warned that it would send the wrong signals to business--just at the time Montgomery was shedding its traditional antibusiness label. As if the prediction came true, the May 16 issue of Washington Business Journal ran an article under the heading "Montgomery Farce," which read:
"It seems that the majority on the Montgomery County Council is acting more like a Latin American junta than enlightened leaders of one of the nation's more progressive counties."
Several county business leaders said the cable antitrust law, and other actions from the highly unpredictable council, could serve to continue the Montgomery-as-antibusiness stereotype. Said J. Edward Campbell, head of Temporary Management Assistance Ltd., "Businesses in general are taking a closer look at legislatures to see how they can be affected. You used to just move in and set up shop. Now, a lot of businesses are thinking, 'If I move in there, they may decide that all businesses with green doors have to close on Tuesdays.' Then they'll just move to Fairfax instead."
Asked specifically about Montgomery, Campbell said, "It is unfortunate if Montgomery is still perceived as antibusiness, when in fact the opposite situation now exists." But he added, "I would have to be a little leery before I'd move here."