More than 50 local leaders have mapped out an economic recovery strategy for the Washington area that they say would leave it more unified, resilient and prosperous than before the novel coronavirus upended the region.
They range from a coordinated regional contact-tracing system to the creation of a pandemic biodefense facility. One effort calls for an economic development plan that permeates the jurisdictional barriers that have previously caused Maryland, Virginia and the District to operate in silos.
“Long-term, if we’ll survive in this new world and thrive … we need to paint a different picture on where we’re headed, not try to get back to where we were,” said Stu Solomon, chief executive and president of Connected DMV. “In the past, single organizations have tried to do some of these things. The companies, the ecosystem is here — it just hasn’t been brought together.”
Solomon, who serves on the Greater Washington Board of Trade, acknowledged that many of the task force’s proposals are ambitious and would require unprecedented levels of coordination. But he argued the D.C. region has the resources to pull them off and has simply failed to work collectively to do so in the past.
He cited a Brookings Institution analysis of the 53 largest U.S. metropolitan areas between 2008 and 2018 as evidence of these shortcomings. The D.C. region ranked 52nd in the racial inclusion category, which compares median earnings and employment among different demographic groups, and placed just 25th in overall economic growth.
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on how much the region — which overall is far wealthier and better educated than the United States as a whole — is underperforming, he said.
“It’s unacceptable where we are in our rankings. That’s a reflection on us collectively,” Solomon said. “Our collective response needs to be strong and persistent; it can’t be episodic.”
Members of the task force, which includes former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld and Greater Washington Board of Trade President Jack McDougle, among others, met monthly between May and October to discuss and vote on each initiative. Conversations about how each will be funded, staffed and delivered will continue into next year, Solomon said. While some of the task force’s goals are likely to take years to carry out, others are already underway.
Radha Muthiah, president and chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank, is anchoring an initiative on “regional resilience” exercises, which aims to shore up greater Washington’s readiness for unplanned events. The first of these exercises took place Dec. 3 and scrutinized the Washington region’s ability to get food into the hands of those who need it most during the pandemic.
The number of people in the region who don’t have a stable source of food ballooned from 400,000 to 600,000 during the pandemic, Muthiah said, adding that the food bank has distributed double the amount of food in the past eight months compared with the same period in 2019.
As part of the exercise, Muthiah and her team created a hunger heat map that pinpointed what areas of the region needed the most food, and how frequently, to better understand the area’s food distribution network. The map laid bare wealth inequalities that affected people’s access to quality groceries, which varied drastically across greater Washington, she said.
During a future public health emergency, improved coordination between leaders in D.C., Maryland and Virginia will be a crucial part of optimizing food purchasing and distribution, Muthiah said. Area food distributors need to communicate more effectively with one another, sharing information about which communities need support.
“The pandemic really brought these inequalities that were already existing to the forefront,” she said. “This is our opportunity to rebuild from this crisis in ways that are much more equitable, and ways that enable people to participate and benefit from our regional economy.”
The next resilience exercises will begin in the spring and may address health care, weather disasters or cybersecurity issues, Muthiah said. Her team is walking through various scenarios to consider what other issues might manifest during future crises.
“So we’re ready to act in the face of another shock if it presents itself,” she added.
Regional collaboration is the common thread among all 12 of the task force’s initiatives, as is making greater Washington a more prominent player in pandemic-prevention efforts.
One objective, led by MedStar Health, calls for leaders in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to combine their respective contact tracing systems in hopes of better detecting future outbreaks of the coronavirus so leaders can more quickly reopen closed businesses, schools and houses of worship. Another would establish a Global Pandemic Biodefense Center in the D.C. area, tasked with generating human antibodies that could neutralize virus-causing pathogens.
Rockville-based nonprofit Biohealth Innovation will partner with the University System of Maryland and Maryland Tech Council to create the biodefense center. Rich Bendis, the chief executive of Biohealth Innovation, has previously pointed out that 40 percent of the companies that received the most funding from Operation Warp Speed — the federal government’s vaccine initiative — are based in Montgomery County.
“That’s the type of industry that Maryland has been working on for so long,” said Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz, who is assisting in the regional biodefense center initiative. “To build an ecosystem with a pandemic center closer to where we are would be something that’s beneficial to the state, region, country and the world, quite honestly,”
Solomon and other leaders who wrote the report say creating a more inclusive economy is just as important as restoring it. Williams, now chief executive of the Federal City Council, is heading an initiative that seeks to mitigate the region’s digital divide, expanding Internet access while building digital literacy among low-income adults, community college students and seniors.
Asked whether he thought the task force’s plan to build a stronger post-pandemic economy in the D.C. area was realistic, Williams responded, “It is.” He recalled how the region has previously banded together to provide dedicated annual capital funding for Metro and how Arlington and Alexandria teamed up to bring Amazon’s second headquarters to Northern Virginia.
“For a long time, the District suffered because there was a divide from D.C. and the rest of the region on coordinating technology, health care and transportation,” Williams said. “As we’re entering a new stage of the city’s growth, and a new era for the region, I think we’ll begin to address these important issues.”
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