USAir Group Inc. and District officials obviously agree that Washington isn't the best place for the airline's corporate headquarters. At least that's the impression one gets from their apparent decision to rule out the District as a headquarters location without ever discussing it with one another.
USAir confirmed several months ago that it was looking in the Washington area for a new headquarters site to consolidate operations scattered at several locations. Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer immediately began wooing USAir, not through aides but in typical Schaefer hands-on style. While USAir is expected to remain in Virginia, it hasn't ruled out a move to Maryland.
The District, however, is not being considered by USAir, nor has anyone from the D.C. government expressed interest in talking to officials of the airline, a USAir spokesman confirmed.
That's some commentary on the District's economic development program, as well as its business climate.
USAir obviously prefers a suburban location, but a spokesman declined to discuss the company's reasons for ruling out the District. D.C. officials' failure to attempt to discuss the matter with USAir contradicts all that has been said about an aggressive effort to make the District a major business center.
In a glowing profile last year, a national magazine reported that D.C. Mayor Marion Barry is "reshaping the nation's capital from a city of politicians to a hub of enterprise." In reality, the city's private sector has expanded, but its economic base still lacks the diversity that could make it a hub of enterprise. Washington still is primarily a government and services city, and the synergy of those two sectors has greatly enhanced economic growth since 1980.
But local real estate officials will attest that Washington still is a hub for lobbyists and the three "A's" -- attorneys, accounting firms and trade associations. They're the driving forces for the boom in the city's office market.
The stated goal of city officials -- to diversify the District's economic base by attracting a variety of businesses -- may yet be achieved, but corporate executives apparently still don't think of the District as a major business center.
That perception is reinforced partly by the continued flight of businesses to the suburbs. Only 12 of the area's top 100 public companies have their headquarters in the District. Some cite the high cost of doing business in the city. Others say suburban officials have done a better job of marketing their jurisdictions.
In fairness, rapid development of Washington's suburbs, beginning in the late 1960s, has siphoned much of the economic development that would have occurred in the District.
Indeed, several professional and trade associations in recent years have moved from the District, as well as from other cities, to Washington's suburbs. Alexandria, for example, has made the attraction of trade associations a major element in its economic development activities.
To compensate for the loss of a major part of its economic base, however, it's imperative that D.C. officials create an image of the District as a major corporate center.
The District still is unique among metropolitan Washington jurisdictions. Quick access to public transportation, close proximity to regulatory agencies, restaurants and shopping within walking distance, and a prestigious Washington address are just some of the selling points that can't be matched by the suburbs.
The mayor implied as much last year in a letter to association executives, promising affordable office space and assuring them that the District stands ready to provide them with financial and development assistance.
Similar pitches are likely to receive a response from other segments of the private sector. The trick is to persuade them that it's possible in Washington to have a government city and what the National League of Cities calls a "national-mix" city: one in which economic development programs are designed to support downtown redevelopment, retention and expansion of existing business, attraction of new business, and small business development.
It's obviously too late to persuade USAir, but it's possible that executives of other major American firms might be sold on the idea of Washington as a major corporate center.