If there is such a thing as an agenda for continued economic growth and improvement in the quality of life in metropolitan Washington, the beginnings of it were outlined this week by Donald E. Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. If Graham's remarks as keynote speaker for the Greater Washington Research Center's spring forum luncheon Wednesday did'nt set the tone for greater regional cooperation, then the concept may have to be reevaluated.
But as the labor shortage in Fairfax County, high unemployment in the District and increasingly difficult transportation problems show, there is greater need now, more than ever, for regional cooperation. The fact that the area's nine jurisdictions comprise a single economy practically dictates the need for cooperation among all elements of the public and private sectors.
Rapid growth of the region is the result in no small part of regional cooperation. Out of this has come a long list of triumphs, as Graham described. Construction of the Metrorail system. Improvement in water quality. Solving the problem of waste disposal. Greater cooperation in law enforcement. But now, "As we look back at our accomplishments, we must also give some serious thought to the regional problems of today and tomorrow," he cautioned.
It is, he suggested several times, in the self-interest of those in the private sector to work for greater regional cooperation in solving the problems of unemployment, transportation, education, etc. Innovation in attacking the basic problems of this or any other community has "fallen on hard times," Graham asserted.
"Federal leadership has been lost. Federal resources are dwindling, and the region must rely to a great extent upon itself. Remembering many of the greatest triumphs of this community and many of the very greatest triumphs of the Greater Washington Research Center , what are the implications of the expanding size of this region for current and future regional cooperation?" Graham asked.
Given the findings contained in a series of reports this year on metropolitan Washington's changing economy, the question is a timely one. Indeed, it is a challenge to the private sector to take up where the research center leaves off in a "state of the region" report issued Wednesday. Essentially a summary of the six studies it issued earlier, the center concluded in its latest report that a strong and healthy economy "is not assured for the Washington area and should not be taken for granted."
The area's economy is changing, "becoming more vulnerable" to shifts in the national and international economies, the report continued. One of the more troubling aspects of the center's studies, however, is a finding that a restructuring in the region's economy has produced rapid employment growth in suburban jurisdictions, while the economic base in the District may be in "jeopardy."
Recalling recent articles in The Post that focused on the growing disparities in jobs and employment in the region, Graham reminded business leaders that part of the problem is "purely economics." But it was a series of questions he posed that served both as a challenge and a framework for future discussions and action in the private and public sectors.
"Some of the jobs don't pay enough to make it worthwhile to travel from D.C. to Fairfax, but part of the problem is communications," Graham said. "People do not know what jobs are there, where they are and how to apply for them. Part of the problem is transportation. People cannot conveniently get to the jobs.
"Is this a suitable topic for some self-interested cooperation among local people? Employers have a lot at stake in terms of the labor shortage, and employers and citizens groups have a more direct interest in doing something about this than even local governments do. But is this a possible topic for the kind of regional discussion the center is so good at leading?"
Clearly, transportation is the major area for future regional cooperation, just as it was in the past, Graham maintained. "Here, we either sink or swim together. But what does that mean beyond completing Metrorail? More and more of the jobs in this area lie beyond the rail system. What new roads, what new bus systems are going to get people to them? Or will we become another growing community that chokes on its own traffic?"
One of the more provocative questions Graham raised could be called the litmus test of regional cooperation. But what Graham admits is a dubious subject for future cooperation could revolutionize public education, if given a chance to work here. Is it possible, he wondered, for neighboring counties, or the District and a suburban jurisdiction, to share special educational resources, such as magnet-school programs for science and the arts?
In the meantime, Graham says he continues to "wonder and fear what may be the impact of our explosive growth on the very large community of very poor people in our midst? High-tech firms come here, [shopping] malls spring up, the area grows and changes, but the seemingly intractable problems of the poor remain."
Conceding that the federal government's effort has lessened, Graham declared: "I don't think the people of this richly endowed community -- the highest in income and education in this land -- will be judged only by the numbers of high-tech firms we attract or the number of shopping malls. Will we find ways to keep attacking the old problems of the poorest people among us, quality schooling, health care, employment, crime, drugs and so on, or do we give up?"
The biggest question of all is, what will be the response to Graham's questions and challenge?