“We are not just waiting for businesses to come,” said County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who was elected in 2018. “We are going out, beating the bushes, to tell the story of Prince George’s County.”
Montgomery’s slippage from the top spot could be a warning sign, depending on one’s point of view. Its leadership is divided over how best to create jobs.
County Executive Marc Elrich (D) wants to ensure that growth helps reduce economic inequality and combat climate change. His critics, some of whom sit on the Montgomery County Council, say that’s a smokescreen to conceal a slow-growth agenda. Some residents are wary of development out of fear it will worsen traffic and school crowding.
“People who think I hate development, they don’t know me very well,” Elrich said. “I just want to control it in a way so that we get a county benefit that’s bigger than saying, ‘Well, if it all gets built, I get so much tax revenue.’ ”
The two counties’ economic performance is important partly because both have fallen well behind Northern Virginia in job creation, creating an imbalance that threatens the Washington region’s overall growth. Also, Montgomery and Prince George’s are Maryland’s two most populous counties and have historically been the state’s economic engine.
Prince George’s added more jobs than Montgomery in 2016, 2017 and the first half of 2019, according to federal data compiled by George Mason University’s Stephen S. Fuller Institute.
Prince George’s did so even though its population is 14 percent smaller than Montgomery’s.
Looking at a longer period, from 2013 to 2018, Prince George’s jobs grew by 21,236, or 7.1 percent, according to state figures provided by the county. Montgomery added 19,540 jobs in the period, a gain of 4.3 percent.
Montgomery does retain one significant advantage: Its jobs pay better. In 2018, the average annual salary in Montgomery was $75,650, compared with $58,219 in Prince George’s.
“In terms of jobs growth, we have absolutely jumped ahead of Montgomery County,” Alsobrooks said. “We are regarded as a very business-friendly environment. We have a council and an executive that are working together.”
It was not always so.
For many years, Prince George’s was viewed as a runner-up to Montgomery in economic growth. Its reputation hit bottom in 2010 when FBI agents arrested the county executive, Jack B. Johnson (D), on corruption charges. The story drew international attention because he was caught on a wiretap urging his wife to flush a $100,000 check that he’d gotten as a bribe and hide tens of thousands in ill-gotten cash in her underwear when agents knocked on the door of the couple’s Mitchellville home.
Johnson served more than five years in federal prison on corruption charges. Prosecutors said he received more than $1 million in bribes, and his wife, several developers, county officials and business executives also were implicated in the scandal.
But the stench of corruption dissipated in the years that followed, when Johnson was succeeded first by Rushern L. Baker III (D) and now Alsobrooks, who served two terms as state’s attorney before being elected county executive. That, combined with a drop in the violent crime rate, led companies to view Prince George’s more favorably.
“We’ve created a climate now where the business community sees opportunity in the county,” said the Prince George’s County Council’s chairman, Todd Turner (D-District 4). “People are looking differently at Prince George’s County than they were 10 years ago.”
It also appears that businesses have either reduced or ended the “redlining” of the county for racial reasons — avoiding investing there because it is majority black — a practice some officials and analysts say was a problem in the past.
“I talk to investors every day. I have not had the sense that people are reluctant to come here because it’s majority African American,” Alsobrooks said, though she acknowledged it could have happened in the past. “Maybe it was race, ignorance.”
In Montgomery, a big factor discouraging job growth is the county’s reputation as being unfriendly to business. Elrich’s election in 2018 reinforced that perception, as he was seen as a leading anti-growth member of the County Council before being elected county executive.
Elrich says he’s trying to change the county’s reputation by making the procurement process more user-friendly, opening small-business resource centers and giving local companies an advantage in bidding for county contracts. He did so after meeting with hundreds of business owners to listen to their concerns.
“We invited the business community to come tell us why we’re so bad,” Elrich said. “We’re listening to people. We’re beginning to change our processes.”
His critics on the council, who want him to go further in promoting business-friendly policies, are led by council members Hans Riemer (D-At Large) and Andrew Friedson (D-District 1).
Friedson sponsored a bill, which passed in July, that requires all legislation to include an economic impact statement.
“The first thing we need to do is make sure that economic development is a part of everything we do,” Friedson said. “If we’re not focused on relentlessly growing our economy, then we face a choice that nobody wants to make — either raise taxes to keep up with our services, or cut services for people who really need help.”
Both Elrich and his critics say a major goal is to do more to support the biotech industry. Montgomery has a natural advantage in that area as home to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.
Elrich is trying to get the University of Maryland system or another institution to create two graduate-level research facilities — in biotech, and cybersecurity and information technology. That would help create a stream of high-tech talent that companies want.
He would like to locate the facilities in White Flint, which was a finalist in the competition for Amazon’s second headquarters — ultimately won by Arlington County in Northern Virginia. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Elrich concedes that Montgomery struggles to compete with communities across the Potomac River.
“We’re not Northern Virginia sitting next to an airport and the Pentagon, which are enormous advantages for any business,” he said.
Maybe he’ll settle for trying to reclaim the jobs title from Prince George’s.