The Washington region’s business and political leaders share a clear understanding of what they should do to fill the economic gap left by the historic slowdown in federal spending.
But it’s not enough just to know what to do: Somebody actually has to do it. And many observers say that no one has emerged in business or government with enough clout and vision to drive through the changes.
The region could usefully post a “help wanted” notice: “Seeking powerful politicians and prominent business executives to rally fragmented metropolitan area to cooperate on obvious steps to promote private-sector growth and tap new markets.”
Two major reports issued last week generally agree on a menu of actions. A high-level business and civic group, the Roadmap for the Washington Region’s Economic Future, produced one. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments released the other.
Both urge measures to boost promising local industries, including cybersecurity, health technology and financial services. Both propose to improve overall conditions for doing business and to raise the quality of life to attract and retain workers.
“We both see the problem the same way,” Chuck Bean, COG’s executive director, said. “The public sector and the private sector are definitely converging.”
Parts of the recipe for area jurisdictions are painfully familiar: Fix Metro and reduce traffic jams. Build more affordable housing. Stop trying to poach one another’s companies and instead work together to pitch the region as a whole to investors and customers elsewhere in the United States and abroad.
But other findings may come as a surprise.
For instance, both reports urge the region to “rebrand” itself to improve its image. Currently, Washington is strongly identified with gridlock, partisanship and other political ailments. Outsiders overlook its myriad strengths, such as an educated and knowledgeable workforce, high-income households, and a thriving nightlife and arts scene.
Washington’s poor image cost it a chance at becoming the U.S. candidate to host the 2024 Olympics, according to Mark Ein, founder of Venturehouse Group and a supporter of the city’s bid for the Games.
“We lost because of our brand,” Ein told a large audience Thursday in McLean, where the Roadmap report was released. Not only is Washington associated with dysfunction, Ein said, but overseas, the city is also viewed as “the evil face of the U.S. empire.”
Another eye-opener was the high priority placed on finding enough workers able to do the sophisticated tasks required in 21st-century industry.
“The number one requirement threatening the achievement of the Washington region’s economic future . . . is talent,” said the Roadmap report, written by George Mason University economist Stephen S. Fuller.
The reports say the region’s universities, community colleges and job-training programs should do more to fill business’s needs for technical workers at all levels.
“Building a reliable pipeline of workers to meet the needs of current and future employers will require improved collaboration,” says COG’s study, called “State of the Region: Economic Competitiveness Report.”
The new focus on regional efforts arises directly from worry about the loss of federal jobs and contracts in the Washington-area economy.
The shrinkage began in 2010, when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives and gained seats in the Senate and then set about to rein in the federal budget.
“The Washington region’s economy has not experienced a structural change similar to this since the end of World War II,” the Roadmap report says.
Despite agreement on what to do, many business executives and political observers warn that leadership is lacking.
The challenge is well-known on the political side. Elected officials may speak positively about the need for regional cooperation, but ultimately, they think mainly about benefiting the constituents who elect them.
In particular, governors and legislators in Richmond and Annapolis have been wary of Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs getting too cozy. That’s been a roadblock to creating a regional transportation authority to raise funds to support Metro and repair or build bridges across the Potomac River.
“Today, there are no regional organizations or channels for leadership or action that have the explicit goal of strengthening the region’s competitive position to the advantage of its non-federally dependent business base,” the Roadmap report says.
In addition, the Washington region suffers from a dearth of widely known, influential business leaders willing to step up to push a regional agenda.
This is partly because the city has depended so much on federal spending that no big private company or industry serves as a natural leader. By contrast, Intel helped lead a regional effort in Portland, Ore., and Qualcomm did so in San Diego.
“It is really important to have business champions to advocate for and promote this activity,” Marek Gootman, director of strategic partnerships and global initiatives at the Brookings Institution, said.
Gootman’s perspective is significant, because Brookings and JPMorgan Chase have a joint project — the Global Cities Initiative — that the Washington area has just applied to join.
The initiative provides market research and other guidance to help metropolitan areas identify the best ways to increase their exports. It already serves 30 regions, including Chicago, Atlanta, San Diego and Toronto.
The bid was made jointly by COG, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. The initial round of “coaching” for a region typically takes 10 months to a year and is free.
COG’s Bean said he has heard from other cities that the main benefit was identifying whatever they were already producing that could be successfully exported.
“From our region, we’re not talking about filling freight cars. We’re talking about high-value-added services,” Bean said.
In the long run, it will make a difference only if folks with the authority step up to make the necessary changes a reality.