The top leaders of the District, Virginia and Maryland said Tuesday they’d like to go abroad together on a joint trade mission to drum up business for the Washington region as a whole rather than just for their individual jurisdictions.
Such a combined effort, which would be a significant change from past practice, was initially endorsed by District Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) at a morning business forum in McLean. The office of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) later expressed willingness, as well.
Elected officials usually justify costly foreign travel by emphasizing the need to compete for jobs and deals with other cities and states – including their immediate neighbors.
But Washington area business and civic leaders are increasingly pushing politicians to battle less with one another and collaborate more, partly as a way to soften the damage to the region from the federal spending slowdown.
Supporters of a regional approach say the Washington area, including Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs, is a single economic unit and would benefit from being marketed that way. Joint trade missions also could reduce travel costs and make it easier to get access to top decision makers overseas.
“I’d love to go with Muriel and Gov. Hogan,” McAuliffe said. “The more regionally we can work together, the better off we are.”
No destination has been selected, although Canada and Cuba have been suggested as possibilities.
“Our teams are going to talk,” Bowser said. “I think there are some exciting opportunities.”
The agreement in principle on a joint trade mission was the highlight of an event at which Bowser, McAuliffe and Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) discussed the potential advantages – but also the challenges – of regional cooperation.
Miller teased McAuliffe that if he really supported collaboration, then he wouldn’t try to persuade Marriott to move its corporate headquarters from Montgomery County to Northern Virginia. Maryland and Virginia are in high-profile contests over the future site of both Marriott and a new headquarters for the FBI.
“You don’t need to just talk the talk, you need to walk the walk,” Miller said, pointing a finger at McAuliffe. “The first thing we need to do is, we need to keep Marriott in Maryland.”
McAuliffe rose to the bait. “If they [Maryland] lower their taxes, then maybe,” he said, to laughter and applause from the audience of about 500 business executives.
Bowser then jumped in with a plug of her own: “We have to say where the Marriott corp. was born: Washington, D.C.”
Much of the talk focused on transportation. Participants hailed the recent appointment of a new general manager for the Metro transit system, but McAuliffe said it had taken too long because of divisions among the jurisdictions.
“The [Metro] board has been somewhat dysfunctional,” McAuliffe said. “It should not have taken us a year to get a general manager on one of the greatest systems in the globe.”
Bowser faulted the region for being unable to provide Metro with a dedicated stream of funding.
The jurisdictions “haven’t responded on that in 40 years,” Bowser said afterward. “That’s not new. What is new is we recognize we have a middle-aged system and we shouldn’t have to figure out from year to year how to pay for it.”
The leaders spoke at the Capital Region Business Forum, which was billed as the start of an annual series to encourage elected officials to think regionally.
Principal organizers were the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Fairfax and Prince George’s Chambers of Commerce. They expressed satisfaction with the results, despite the competitive banter.
“You’re going to talk about the competition over Marriott, and okay, but really, let’s focus more on the opportunities for collaboration, and I think they raised a lot of them, with Metro at the top of the list,” said James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
On the issue of where to rebuild Potomac bridges, or add a new one, Miller agreed with McAuliffe on the need to address chronic congestion on the American Legion bridge on the Capital Beltway between Montgomery and Fairfax counties. Miller said it was necessary as well to rebuild the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge, which links Charles and King George counties.
But Miller also said Maryland would have a hard time finding money for bridges because of Hogan’s recent cuts in tolls.
Asked to comment, Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the recent toll reductions had not affected funds available for bridges. He added, “If Senate President Miller wants to make an extra $4 donation every time he crosses the Bay Bridge, the Maryland Transit Administration will be happy to collect it. I doubt any of his constituents feels the same way.”
Mayer also said that while Maryland was willing to discuss the American Legion bridge with Virginia, the Hogan administration placed a higher priority on reducing congestion on Interstate 270.
Some participants were disappointed that Hogan had not attended. He has been battling cancer, but was well enough Tuesday to attend two public events in western Maryland during a four-day visit to that part of the state.
Organizers and the governor’s office said that when the invitation was initially extended in August, Hogan was unable to accept because of uncertainties about his health.
Mayer said visiting western Maryland was “very important” to Hogan, because “the rural portions of the state haven’t received the attention they deserved over the years.”
But he said Hogan supported Washington-area cooperation, and noted that the governor had invited Bowser and McAuliffe to attend a regional summit in Annapolis in February or March.
As for the joint foreign trade mission, Mayer said: “We’d be open to that. It would depend on scheduling, but the general idea, sure.”