Maybe Metro funding was just the start.
With the District, Maryland and Virginia all in the running to land Amazon.com’s planned headquarters, business and civic leaders in Washington are coming together around a pair of initiatives on higher education and affordable housing that they say will address long-standing regional needs regardless of whether the tech giant brings its projected 50,000 jobs here.
The same week Amazon officials toured the region, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) — previously a holdout for a proposed Metro funding boost — announced that he would support $150 million for the ailing transit system, ending an impasse.
Two other initiatives led by local business leaders are coming together, both being created with an eye on Amazon but with the understanding that they are needed regardless.
In one, 13 universities from Baltimore to Richmond, including Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia, have agreed to join a group of local corporations in preparing graduates to compete in high-demand areas of data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and cybersecurity.
Working with Capital One, Northrop Grumman, Under Armour and other top employers, the schools will create a credential to signal that graduates — whatever their majors — have reached a level of digital fluency needed to compete for jobs that require tech skills.
“It’s one of two or three areas where we know our future is going to be,” said Ángel Cabrera, president of George Mason University. Cabrera said the agreement would allow participating schools to more rapidly match curriculum to the jobs in a fast-changing digital economy.
“This allows students to say, ‘Hey, I’m a history major who knows how to code, who knows how to use data.’ That would really bridge that gap,” he said. “Otherwise it would be hard for that history major to really show their potential.”
The collaboration, spearheaded by the Greater Washington Partnership, a group of local chief executives, also plans to hold an event showcasing the region’s tech talent. It could be a miniature version of Austin’s South by Southwest conference and festival.
Another initiative, led by former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the region’s largest real estate developer, JBG Smith, aims to preserve or build between 2,000 and 3,000 affordable housing units over the next decade.
Called the Washington Housing Initiative, the project will combine charitable dollars and socially driven investments to stem the region’s extreme rise in housing costs in high-demand areas by acquiring or building units that will remain affordable to middle-class workers for at least 15 years.
The initiative has received $20 million in donations from JBG Smith, District-based Bernstein Management and executives from both firms. The goal is to raise $100 million to $150 million that can be paired with traditional real estate financing.
At least half of the units will be in the District, with parts of Wards 4 and 5 considered top priorities.
“What we want to do is allow residents who are here to benefit from the improvements that are taking place,” Williams said. Williams, chief executive and executive director of the Federal City Council, a D.C. business group, will be setting up an independent nonprofit organization, the Washington Housing Conservancy, to own the properties.
Like the push for sustained Metro funding, both initiatives originated before Amazon announced in October that it would open a second North American headquarters, which it calls HQ2. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Both projects also have the potential to make the region more attractive to Amazon, Apple (which has discussed expanding in Northern Virginia) and other companies looking to grow.
A talented workforce is widely considered a top priority of both companies as they venture away from the West Coast. Housing costs, meanwhile, have become such a problem for employers trying to retain workers that some local firms have started to open back offices outside the region to save money. A recent study found that a household must earn an average of $34.48 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the District, higher than any state but Hawaii.
With the District, Montgomery County and Northern Virginia among 20 locations in the running for the Amazon site, regional collaboration — for decades an afterthought of local leaders — is suddenly on the front burner.
As Williams put it regarding the affordable housing project: “This was underway well before the Amazon thing started, but I think it helps.” JBG Smith also owns land in many of the areas under consideration by Amazon, including Crystal City.
Russ Ramsey, chair of the Greater Washington Partnership, said the education initiative “really has nothing to do with Amazon,” but is also aimed at developing the type of talent that the company needs. He convened a meeting of university presidents in January aimed at finding shared goals among a group that is often competitive.
“They were introducing themselves because they literally hadn’t met,” Ramsey said. “They were pushing us to figure out ways that they can work together.”
Freeman A. Hrabowski III, longtime president of the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, said the school works with private employers such as Northrop Grumman but will benefit from the agreement between the schools and industry on the skills needed for the next generation of students.
“We think that looking at the needs of employers and matching them with what we do is very important,” he said. “But there has to be trust on both sides.”
Whether the spirit of collaboration survives beyond Amazon’s decision — and a possible increase in public subsidies — is yet to be seen. The executive leading Amazon’s search recently wrote to the 20 finalists to inform them that they are all still under consideration, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Washington Post. Amazon plans to make a decision this year.
“We recognize that if one of our jurisdictions earns the honor of being selected for HQ2,” they wrote, “we all win.”