Do We Really Need a Regional Economic Plan?
There's been a drumbeat of concern from the regional fathers over the need to think more regionally. Regional transportation, regional housing, regional jobs. Forget you belong to a state or city, even. Just think of yourselves as citizens of the Greater Washington megalopolis.
That makes sense, to a large extent. Urban areas are starting to agglomerate into mega-regions, linked to each other by premium transit and web-enabled business opportunities. It's silly to box ourselves into provincial jurisdictions.
Crafting a regional economic plan, however, is no easy feat. Greater Washington is a rigidly tripartite beast, and its component governments have a vested interest in attracting businesses and residents—all that tax revenue will flow into their coffers, after all, not some kind of shared body that will spread the wealth around. Exhibit A in regional economic non-cooperation is competition for the new Northrop Grumman headquarters: D.C., Maryland, and Virginia all put incentive packages on the table that would've been completely unnecessary had any of them considered one state's win to be everyone's gain. Then there's film subsidies, competition for federal agency tenants, the race to undercut each others' tax rates...the list goes on.
Yesterday, at a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments panel on economic stuff, Prince William County Supervisor Frank Principi asked of economic development directors of some of the area's counties and cities: Given the inherent competition among the various localities, do we need a regional economic plan? "It's the elephant in the room," he said. "Were we barking up the wrong tree?"
One by one, each of the panelists said no, of course we need to cooperate, my neighbor's success is my success too! "It’s going to make all the tides rise," nodded Brian Kenner, chief of staff to D.C.'s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.
And then, Arlington's Terry Holzheimer had to break up the happy consensus, arguing that the local jurisdictions had some of the best economic development teams in the country—why not let them do their jobs? "Anything that Steve does better than I’m doing is something that I’m going to want to do better than him," he said, referring to Montgomery County's Steve Silverman. "The importance of local competitiveness is really important."
And ain't that the American dream?
Part of what the economic development people might have been thinking about is the Greater Washington Initiative, a project of the Board of Trade that basically went defunct when its executive director Matt Erskine left for the Department of Commerce (its website has been inactive at least since Jack Johnson was still the Prince Georges County executive). But as Holzheimer pointed out, GWI didn't really do planning either, focusing instead on marketing the region to outsiders who might want to come here. "I don’t think that’s a strategy, I think that’s a message," he said.
Each of the jurisdictions has their own strengths and opportunities: In the case of Loudoun County, it's internet fiber and proximity to Dulles Airport. In the District, it's urbanity and the Capitol. In Prince Georges County, it's underutilized Metro stations. In Arlington and Montgomery County, it's safety, a highly educated population, and good schools.
Sure, they all have an interest in regionally shared resources like a healthy Metro system. But perhaps the region should leave the economic planning to the people who do it best.