That brief burst of static over funding for the District's business marketing center was much ado about nothing, as it turns out.
Contrary to reports that circulated recently, the D.C. government will continue to fund the center for the recent fiscal year, ending a controversy stemming from a proposal to slash the center's budget.
"If we had a commitment here to provide [the funding], then we would keep that commitment," said Eric Price, the District's new deputy mayor for economic development.
Price said he was assured by the city's chief financial officer that money is available to fund the marketing center's operations. In addition to the $400,000 that was allocated, said Price, "We have in the [current] budget another $1 million to keep the center open."
So much for the alarm apparently triggered by a letter Douglas J. Patton, former acting deputy mayor for planning and economic development, wrote in September before leaving office.
In the letter to D.C. Chamber President Marie Johns, Patton said the city was forwarding a check in the amount of $150,000 to fund the center, which is housed in the chamber's offices. The remaining $250,000 that had been appropriated for the center, Patton wrote, would be withheld pending an evaluation and possible merger of ongoing business and tourism marketing activities.
Appointed deputy mayor for planning and economic development by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams less than a month ago, Price had barely moved into his new office when the marketing center funding flap surfaced. He nonetheless quickly resolved the issue in favor of the center, averting what could have been an embarrassing development for the Williams administration.
The chamber's role as host to the marketing center explains why Patton's letter was addressed to Johns. But it still doesn't explain why the center has been housed in the chamber in the first place, muddying its business mission with the chamber's tourism and other promotional activities.
Now that the funding question has been settled, this is an opportune time for District officials to reexamine the marketing center's mission and the private sector's supporting role in its ongoing operation.
Although it has received high marks from some members of the District's business community, the marketing center is also responsible for business retention, a function that really belongs in some other office.
The hybrid arrangement that exists currently is the product of planning by committee and consensus in a vacuum created by what was, until Williams's election last fall, a dysfunctional economic development program.
Six years ago, when economic development was still the equivalent of a foreign language in District government, a task force within the D.C. Building Industry Association developed the idea for a business center. The center, as envisioned by the task force and the association's leadership, would market the District to site location specialists and firms outside the area as a place to relocate or invest in other ways.
As the head of the task force described it at the time, the center would be a vehicle to stimulate development throughout the District.
In the absence of any initiatives along those lines by the District government at the time, the proposal clearly made sense. If nothing else, it served as a prod to get city officials to think more seriously about economic development.
But in laying out a broader mission for the center, the task force probably would agree in hindsight that the center would be more effective if it were operated strictly as a business marketing operation. There is no reason why that can't continue to be done under the present arrangement, in which the center's budget is funded by the D.C. government, with the business community providing financial and other types of support, as needed.
Other aspects of economic development, including business retention, should be administered by the office of the deputy mayor for economic development. After all, those are areas that often involve policy decisions that only government officials can make.
Besides, the District is better prepared now financially, philosophically and administratively, to administer an effective economic development program than it was even a year ago.
Meanwhile, it's obvious that the District, as the primary source of funding for the marketing center and its principal client, should play a more active role in its organization and operation. Price and Jeff Stone, director of the marketing center, have agreed to meet soon and discuss that and other issues. That's a positive step.
Finally, it's time for the District rethink its relationship with the D.C. Chamber. The chamber, after all, is a business advocacy organization, just as any chamber is.
As such, the chamber should not be in the position of having its budget subsidized by the District, even if it is done through a contract to promote tourism in the city or housing the marketing center at the chamber.
To his credit, Price has already begun to ask whether or not the business marketing center should remain at the chamber.
Clearly the chamber should not be in the position of lobbying against legislation before the D.C. Council on the one hand, while holding out the other for city contracts. It's an unholy alliance that smacks of a conflict of interest.