To attribute an impending fiscal crisis in the District to a slowdown in the region's economy is a cop-out. The slowdown merely compounded a situation that was ripe for a fiscal crisis.

The primary factors underlying the city's fiscal problems are mismanagement and a glaring failure by the Barry administration to develop a comprehensive economic development program for expanding the District's employment and tax bases. The District faces its biggest deficit in more than a decade, largely because of what Democratic mayoral candidate Sharon Pratt Dixon calls "an ineffective and dysfunctional economic development decision-making and priority-setting systems."

At the peak of nearly a decade of unprecedented economic expansion five years ago, the Greater Washington Research Center published a prophetic report on major changes in the region's economy. Many of those changes could have serious adverse effects on the District's economy, according to the report. Philip M. Dearborn, vice president of the research center and author of the report, unerringly asserted in it that recent structural changes in the area's economy are "clearly harming the District." It was a factual finding that District officials either ignored or didn't comprehend.

Just this year, a research center report warned that because of declines in population and household income in the District, taxpayers "will be in a poor position to fund large increases in municipal budgets."

In a related report three years ago, Stephen S. Fuller, a professor of regional and urban planning at George Washington University, outlined a remedial course of action long before those and other concerns reached crisis proportion. "To attract and retain skilled and knowledgeable workers, the improvement of the District's housing and residential environment must be among its primary economic development priorities," Fuller wrote in a report titled, "The District of Columbia's Changing Economy and Its Future Growth Opportunities."

Clearly, each of those reports helped define what should have been a major issue in the District's current mayoral campaign: economic development. Most of the city's critical needs -- taxes, affordable housing, a broader employment base, neighborhood revitalization, small business development and business attraction and retention -- are tied directly to economic development.

Of all the candidates running for mayor, only Dixon seems to make the connection as she puts economic development in a context that is relevant for business and private citizens of the District.

Dixon unveiled a strategic economic development plan last month, describing it as the basis for a new private/public partnership. Although perhaps a bit ambitious, it is, nevertheless, a sound approach to economic development.

In calling for a partnership, Dixon broke no new ground. The difference is emphasis. "It is now painfully clear that the old partnership between the city government, developers and major business organizations has neither the economic interest nor the social commitment to undertake the more difficult tasks of community development, neighborhood revitalization, small business development and low- and moderate-income housing production," she declared in a recent campaign speech.

Dixon's call for a partnership is both an appeal and a challenge to business. In effect, she is saying to the private sector: Help the District to broaden its employment and tax bases and, while you're at it, create greater investment opportunities for business -- not just in downtown Washington, but in other areas of the city. In short, it is an invitation to the local business community to indulge in what's known as enlightened self-interest.

Getting business to buy into that -- if she is elected mayor -- will be a tough sell, however. "I think the biggest reason {members of the local business community} are going to get on board is that the world is going to change anyway," Dixon says confidently. "Washington is just too important as a global market for these changes not to occur. What I would do is provide them an opportunity to be the engineers and architects of that change."

And if they choose not to take advantage of that opportunity, Dixon is prepared to take more "creative approaches" to bringing new business to the District. Opportunities exist in the District, she maintains, for a variety of business activities -- from the entertainment industry to high-technology firms. "We have enough land mass in the District to attract that type of industry," she says of the high-tech sector. "My goal is to recruit business and industry in this city as a way of gaining economic parity."

That obviously will require major changes in the way the District's Office of Business and Economic Development operates. "The biggest change {necessary} is putting people in there who understand and have experience in business," says Dixon, a former executive at Potomac Electric Power Co. "We need an office that is out marketing and being creative. We can be a facilitator, bringing bankers and business together. When government plays too heavy a role, you destroy business."

That philosophy is apparent in Dixon's proposal for a capital growth fund -- a pool of at least $100 million that would provide seed money, equity and debt financing for small and minority businesses. The District would provide financial guarantees to individual and institutional investors, but private-sector participants in the new partnership would manage the fund. "Government can play a major role in helping business, {but} our role would be to get the dollars and to provide technical assistance," Dixon explains.

Dixon's detractors continue to dismiss those and other statements she has made during the campaign as the rhetoric of an outsider -- meaning she hasn't held elective office. That notwithstanding, Dixon's economic development proposals reflect not only a fresh management perspective but a vision that's been sorely missing at the District Building.

Two comments she made during a recent interview make the point. On a list of priorities in a Dixon administration, she says, economic development would be "second only to education, and I guess the two go hand-in-hand."

Why attach so much importance to economic development? Says Dixon: "I think one of the reasons we are so polarized {in the District} is economic disparity. Polarization and crime will continue to be problems as long as there are economic problems."