UPDATE, 1:35 p.m. Thursday: Gerald Gordon released this statement today: “I recently participated in a panel discussion and responded to an inquiry about the FBI relocation process. In doing so, I made several comments about the positive merits of a Fairfax County site. Unfortunately, I also mentioned some negative aspects of a neighboring jurisdiction. I regret having made that comment as it has been received by some as being mean-spirited, which was not at all my intention. In this case, the placement of the FBI headquarters is a highly competitive situation but, while we compete, I also value economic development for region as a whole.”
ORIGINAL POST: The tension is rising as governments and developers jockey to land the new FBI headquarters, with Fairfax and Prince George’s counties in the thick of the fight. Last week, speaking to a business group in Fairfax County, the longtime Fairfax economic development director, Gerald Gordon made a crack about Prince George’s, suggesting that perhaps the FBI would prefer that location — if its agents wanted to be closer to the folks they’d be arresting.
This is not a new joke, but it drew some hoots of displeasure from the crowd at the Belle Haven Country Club. Gordon then added, “The elected officials, at least.” (Now who among us hasn’t made some version of that joke?) But after the Washington Business Journal reported this, the DCist blog weighed in with this headline:
“Fairfax Official Says Amazingly Awful Thing About Prince George’s County in Fight Over FBI HQ.”
I asked Gordon about this, and he said he was merely trying to highlight the positive aspects of Fairfax. But beyond that is a bigger question: In such a public contest, do you discuss the competition at all? And are crime rates and public corruption a fair subject for discussion, as a factor for the FBI to consider in making its decision? Because Fairfax has long considered its low crime rate a big selling point in recruiting businesses. Prince George’s less so, though crime there has steadily fallen in recent years.
I spoke to several folks who felt that Gordon’s remarks were inappropriate in this context. Prince George’s County also issued a statement calling the comments a “disservice.”
And apparently Fairfax Chairman Sharon Bulova felt the comments were inappropriate too. She apologized for them Wednesday at a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments meeting, the Business Journal reported. The Business Journal also posted a reader poll: Should Gerald Gordon apologize? As of Wednesday evening, 51 percent had voted “no,” and Holly Dougherty, the executive director of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce, posted a comment that the remarks were merely Gordon’s “dry wit” and shouldn’t be interpreted as mean-spirited.
The FBI appears primarily interested in transportation and access to the Metro, and Prince George’s is promoting the area around the Greenbelt station. Fairfax is pushing its Franconia-Springfield site. But certainly many FBI employees will want to live in the general vicinity of their headquarters. You don’t build an office in one place and tell your employees to live in another. And you want a quality of life that attracts good employees, businesses always say.
For factual comparison, someone living in Prince George’s County is almost seven times more likely, per capita, to have their residence burglarized, and seven times more likely to have their vehicle stolen, per capita, than someone in Fairfax. Prince George’s had 5,469 burglaries in 2011, Fairfax had 1,021. Prince George’s had 4,980 auto thefts in 2011, Fairfax had 881. Prince George’s has a population of about 871,000, Fairfax has about 1.1 million people. Also, there have been a number of public corruption cases in recent years involving Prince George’s officials, but none in Fairfax.
There are various reasons why crime is higher in Prince George’s than Fairfax, and we don’t need to rehash those here. But is it relevant in this discussion? Can crime be considered, dispassionately, as a criterion in the FBI search, or is it somehow taboo?
“Let’s just compete on the merits,” said David C. Harrington, a former Prince George’s County councilman and state senator, and now head of the county’s chamber of commerce. He called Gordon’s remarks “an unfortunate comment” and did not want to delve into whether there was a racial component to it.
“Prince George’s brings a lot of things to the table,” Harrington said. ”A lot of open space, a lot of Metro access. So let’s just compete on the merits.”
I asked if crime could be considered part of the merits. “I think we have an amazing quality of life in Prince George’s County,” Harrington said. “We are one of the wealthiest counties in America, we have amazing subdivisions and we have access to every place in the region” through the nearby major highways.
County boundaries are meaningless and the region should be working together, said Tom Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburgh and now a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. “It’s about a regional conversation," Murphy said. “I think it is really bad etiquette to disparage somebody else in the region.
As mayor, Murphy said, “I went through this well over 100 times” in trying to lure businesses, and even an FBI regional headquarters, to Pittsburgh. And his city is surrounded by literally hundreds of smaller municipalities with their own governments. Murphy said he took trips and handed out keys to the city on behalf of some of those surrounding townships. But even when competing with other cities, “we would talk about Pittsburgh, not disparage the others.”
Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth was present for Gordon’s remarks and was one of those who voiced his disapproval. “There is no need for divisiveness,” Schwartz said. While he said both Fairfax and Prince George’s should be prime candidates, “the Prince George’s sites would help to balance out east-west traffic flows and Metro flows in addition to being a spark for more balanced economic development...Do we forever reinforce unequal growth and investment and concentrate poverty?”
Schwartz noted that Prince George’s has its own benefits, including transit-oriented development sites and competitive access to Union Station and National and BWI airports. Every possible location needs to be thoroughly vetted for transportation options and Metro access, “because we cannot afford another traffic debacle like BRAC,” Schwartz said.
Now it’s Gordon’s turn. He said his remarks were not intended as “a comment about the people of Prince George’s County. It was a comment about the relative openness of the two jurisdictions’ governmental bodies and the clean nature of the government here.”
Gordon said crime is a relevant consideration. “We’ve had other businesses tell us Fairfax County has a plus mark in its column,” when compared with its competitors, “because of its safe neighborhoods. For jurisdictions with more than 100,000 residents, we have the lowest crime rate in the country. And that is a huge plus” when compared with anyone, not just Prince George’s.
The DCist blog said there was “certainly a racial undertone to his comments,” because “Prince George’s County is 65 percent black, while Fairfax County is 68 percent white.” One Prince George’s blogger posted a photo of a Ku Klux Klansman above Gordon’s picture.
Gordon quickly rejected the notion that he or Fairfax are racist or elitist.
“We have spent decades in Fairfax County trying our best to foster diversity in neighborhoods and in our business community,” Gordon said. “The importance of diversity is enormous to us.” He said 38 percent of all children in Fairfax County had “at least one parent not born in the U.S.,” in addition to all the minority kids born here. “We are a majority of minorities,” Gordon said.
So was Gordon wrong? Must municipalities play nice at all times? Now it’s your turn.