The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No Olympics? No problem. Washington CEOs decide to rebuild region anyway.

Russ Ramsey, chairman and chief executive officer of Ramsey Asset Management, and the leader of the new Greater Washington Partnership. (Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg)

In their bid to host the 2024 Olympics, Washington business leaders plotted a transformation of the region into a more accessible, economically powerful and inclusive place, one that would glisten on the world athletic stage.

Washington’s bid for the games died in the fall of last year. But since then its boosters have wrestled with a question: What if they went through with many of their plans anyway?

They decided to go for it. Just over a year after losing out on the Olympics, investment banker Russ Ramsey and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis have corralled 17 local executives to fund a new organization, called the Greater Washington Partnership, aimed at advancing the economy for the area from Baltimore to Richmond.

[Why the Olympics Washington didn’t win could still transform the city]

Ramsey said that the effort to win the 2024 games unearthed an interest among local executives to focus on four areas: transportation, job training, high-growth industry sectors and Washington’s image in the world.

More than other large metropolitan areas, the Washington region sometimes suffers from the fractured leadership of its myriad state and local jurisdictions, as evidenced by failures to sustain the Metro system and costly incentive wars over companies likely to remain here anyway.

“We all know the problems,” Ramsey said. “From our Olympic journey we dealt with them all the time. But what we’ve found is that if you unite around common solutions you’d be surprised about what you find, and it’s very clear that there’s more in the region that unites us than divides us.”

Among the founding board members are chief executives Kevin Plank of Under Armour, Richard D. Fairbank of Capital One, David Rubenstein (co-chief executive) of the Carlyle Group and William J. Stromberg of T. Rowe Price.

Other members include executives from Johns Hopkins University, AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals, the S&R Foundation, Washington Gas, Dominion Power, McKinsey & Co., MedStar Health, JPMorgan Chase and EY, formerly Ernst & Young.

The new group arrives at a time when research by the Brookings Institution and others demonstrates the increasing economic connectivity and prowess of “megaregions” like Washington’s — clout that could become more consequential should the Trump administration pursue policies that depart from the priorities of urban economies.

[Megaregions: What the U.S. map should really look like]

“One of the main things that we have learned through all this is that regions that think of themselves as regions, are more likely to succeed,” said Peter Scher, chairman of the D.C. region for JPMorgan Chase, who backed some of the Brookings work and will serve as vice chairman of the new group.

At 10.5 million people, Scher said that the Washington region was third largest in the country but that it was increasingly stricken by transportation shortfalls and skills gaps, issues he said hindered growth for top employers in financial services, health care and other industries.

“These are companies that want to grow their businesses in the region and they’ve got two or three major issues,” he said. “How do they attract the workforce they need — how do they attract the talent they need? And then how do they move them around the region?”

Ramsey said that the group was forming as a charitable nonprofit organization and planned to announce a “blockbuster” talent as the executive director. He said he’d raised enough money for the group to operate for three years, though he declined to say how much each member had contributed.

Govs. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) and Larry Hogan (R-Md.), plus D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), all signed on with supportive comments.

But Ramsey and Leonsis will also be entering a crowded field of regionally focused organizations that appear to have somewhat overlapping missions. Ramsey said an early priority would be creating a region-wide infrastructure plan, for instance, but the Metropolitan Council of Governments published a “State of the Region: Infrastructure Report” last year.

The 127-year-old Greater Washington Board of Trade meanwhile prides itself as the region’s largest network of business and non-profit leaders, while the 2030 Group has focused on research and trying to build a new Potomac River crossing. Another group, founded by former AOL executive George Vradenburg and developer Herb Miller, called the Chesapeake Crescent, aimed to drive regional innovation.

Ramsey said the other groups had supported the Olympic bid and he expected they would do the same for his new venture.

“I believe we can be accretive to each others’ efforts,” he said. 

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz