Housing Complex

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.

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    uh, yeah, and that helps corps to get tax breaks. Plus it leaves us with Virginia building HOT lanes on the beltway, Md building the purple line, and no clear plan to link them. And downward pressure on taxes, and hence on social services. I don't see how that makes sense.

    Oh, and I think you meant Loudoun for internet and Dulles.

  • Lydia DePillis


    You're right, I did mean Loudoun, thanks.

    And I didn't say the states shouldn't coordinate, especially on transportation. Just that on the economic development side, they've got their own stuff going on, and that's fine. I generally think that handing out monetary incentives is not the best idea, though - competition for businesses should come more on the side of creating communities people want to live and work in. Happy employees are a pretty important competitive advantage.

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    I guess I'm not clear on what a regional economic plan means - you mention Dulles, but that was not a Loudoun county initiative. The capitol was not created by DC, and is important to most of the region. Metro, ditto is a regional initiative. Other than the school systems I don't see anything local there. I'm not even sure that there aren't gains to be had in coordinating higher ed and adult training at least. An agency in DC may use a contractor in Tyson's, whose employees may live in Loudoun, who service providers may live in Prince William. Transportation, education, etc ARE the keys to local economic plannning.

  • H Street Resident

    There are areas where the localities can coordinate areas where they cannot. Transportation is a must. Virginia (sans Arl./Alex.) is pro-car moving, DC is pro-people moving, and MD is well, we don't know yet, its bi- for now. Point is, this is an area where coordination is feasible and desirable.

    Another area is simply dividing up major economic industries to assure the region overall wins. VA would have been ideal for Lockheed, on the other hand MD and VA should be lobbying to make DC a tax free-zone for re-insurers to repatriate offshore funds from the Caymans. B/c maryland has underutilized metro, it should get a number of the moving or consolidating federal agencies instead of having to fight with VA and DC over them or ruining traffic by poorly siting facilities (brac).

    But lets understand the limits of cooperation, DC, VA and MD are different places in terms of culture and economic viability. They all have very different needs to address.

    Sidebar: I wish NOVA would just succeed from the south and become the State of Northern Virginia so it can cooperate more fully with its two eastern cousins. At that point we'd be free to open a progressive utopia with Krugman and Klein running point so liberals don't have to live like expats in Portland .

  • Tom M.

    Sooo... coord in higher ed? Not likely. Rather than make an agreement with either NoVa Comm College and/or Montgomery Comm College, DC created a brand spanking new DC Comm College. Would it be BETTER to coord and specialize some? Yes, no doubt. Is there any incentive for the Eco Devo professionals to suggest that? No. Can elected public officials require it? Yes - but it will be a meaningless "requirement." Could voters push for reform and coord? Only in theory. In practice it would be almost impossibly hard. Nice debating topic. Not a thing will change...

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  • Alexandria Resident

    Can we stop using "balkanized" or "balkanization" to refer to something in a negative manner? It's discriminative and offensive on an ethnic level. We wouldn't refer to something bad as "Latin American" or "African."

  • Devoe

    Except for that "balkan" isn't an ethnicity (witness the atrocious interethnic violence among "balkans"), but whatever, everyone's gotta be pissed about something.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    "Balkanization" is meant to describe political fragmentation, mirroring what happened in the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated into numerous smaller political entities that often didn't like to cooperate with each other (to put it mildly).

  • http://the2030group.com/ The 2030 Group

    The 2030 Group’s push for greater regional cooperation in the Metropolitan Washington area is, as you say, no easy feat. It is still necessary, however, to secure the region’s economic future. A regional outlook can improve our quality of life, prepare our businesses and housing industry for the influx of future workers, and encourage the private and public sectors across jurisdictional lines to collaborate to find solutions to some of our most pressing issues. Based on the growth projections, we don’t have the capacity to grow at the current rate unless we have more regional cooperation.

  • Vinnie

    I think the author really misses the point of regionalism. The notion that different areas have different strengths and weaknesses is irrelevant -- of course they do, and if economic planning was being done by a regional body they still would. One thing ED planners may not tell you is that industries tend to develop in clusters for completely arbitrary reasons that planning cannot affect -- that wouldn't change either.

    The issue (which seems to be praised by this article?) is competition between jurisdictions, or termed another way -- jurisdictional arbitrage. When local government entities fight over commercial (or fed government) development, it just takes away from their own tax rolls in the long term (that's what incentive packages are).

    Further, it creates a set of perverse incentives for businesses. Development that brings in X dollars of property and sales tax will always be more significant for outlying jurisdictions rather than centrally located ones (since the total tax roll will be less), so better incentives tend to come on the urban fringe, moving employment outwards (and often away from transit).

    I recently moved from the Bay Area, and the impact there is incredible. While residential development is booming within the urban core, employment is moving farther and farther to the fringes into office parks in the middle of nowhere, but with an interstate exit. It creates a sprawling, congested mess where everyone drives to work, regardless of their thoughts on the subject.