Corporate executives in Montgomery County, anticipating problems that would be associated with growth in the 1980s and beyond, drew a blueprint five years ago for the kind of business and public-sector relationship that is so critical to strategic economic development planning.
Business leaders in the county, working under the aegis of the Montgomery County Economic Advisory Council, initiated a comprehensive program to help county officials meet the challenge of what was perceived then as a changing economic environment. A resolution adopted in 1982 contained the essence of this business initiative in noting that the EAC was created to "formalize and strengthen the spirit of cooperation and partnership existing between the public and private sectors of Montgomery County."
The resolution noted further that the EAC "recognized that changes in demographic and economic environment could have potentially serious consequences to the high quality of life, of public service, or to the quality of the infrastructure."
In recommending a series of private- public-sector actions to address those changes, a Montgomery County business leader then declared: "The 1980s present new challenges to business and government that could adversely affect every segment of life, economic activity and government service."
That public- private-sector partnership in Montgomery County has become somewhat of a model over the years. In the interim, business and government leaders in other jurisdictions have embraced the concept, if not the specific goals, many of which simply would not be applicable in their respective areas.
A recent example of this kind of partnership in action was exhibited this week in Prince George's County, when a group of business and community leaders unveiled a plan that proposes a course of action for the county in four vital areas: education, employment, public safety and financial stability of public services.
The group spent more than two years on a strategic plan for the county, first assessing its strengths and weaknesses, then identifying those areas that weren't being adequately addressed through the machinery of government or some other mechanism. Ultimately, the group developed a plan in which it outlined objectives and suggested courses of actions that the county should take to achieve various goals over the next several years.
"We sought to position the county for the future and employed a 'strategic planning' process," said the group's chairman, James O'Mara, president of Greenhorne & O'Mara Inc.
Interestingly, the strategic planning group did not include economic development among the four issues contained in the plan. Prince George's County's Economic Development Corp. would examine that issue in considerable detail, the group explained. Similarly, the strategic planning group explained that transportation -- an issue that is critical in any type of planning that addresses economic growth -- was rejected as a subject for analysis, because the Park and Planning Commission was in the midst of completing a transportation master plan when the group began its assessment.
Nonetheless, the strategic planning group in Prince George's took into account the major business, population and development trends that are certain to have an impact on the county's growth and economy over the next several years.
The EAC in Montgomery County has done no less over the years, in its advisory role of helping the county to achieve its economic development goals through an orderly process. Population growth, transportation, housing, business retention and business attraction have been at the core of its recommendations.
Ironically, when the need for a strong business-government partnership appears to be at its greatest in Montgomery County, the council and the private sector are at loggerheads over what the growth pattern should be. Earlier this week, the county council approved a controversial building cap that is anathema to a large segment of the business community. County Executive Charles Gilchrist, who vowed to veto the measure, has proposed a fee on all new construction to help pay for badly needed roads in burgeoning development corridors, an alternative that many business leaders apparently are prepared to accept as the lesser of two evils.
One of the lessons of the past that apparently is being overlooked is that part of the problem in Montgomery County is the legacy of a moratorium that was put on developments a few years ago when reasonable people couldn't agree on what was best for the county.
The course of growth in Montgomery County over the next decade -- indeed, the growth of the entire region -- will depend largely on the strength of the partnership between the private and public sectors.