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By Robert McCartney June 7, 2021 at 4:00 a.m. CDT
Many have tried, all have failed. But yet another group is trying to promote cross-border cooperation within greater Washington to overcome our region’s chronic east-west economic divide. The new initiative comes from Connected DMV, a broad coalition of leaders from government, business, higher education and philanthropy. The organization formed in 2019 to encourage our fragmented area to collaborate to promote “socially responsible economic growth.” Now it has issued its initial blueprint for a long-term “Regional Economic Development Strategy.” Many recommendations in the 69-page document are familiar: ● Area jurisdictions should market themselves together as a region, rather than compete with one another to attract businesses. It shouldn’t be Fairfax vs. the District, but instead greater Washington vs. Boston, Silicon Valley and London.
● The region needs a common “brand” to promote its assets and fight its image as a government swamp. (A 2017 effort to do so failed to raise sufficient funds.) ● The area should build its capacity in high-tech industries of the future, such as pandemic response, hydrogen fuel and quantum computing. ● A broad-based effort is needed to improve educational and job opportunities for lower-income residents — most of whom are racial minorities — especially in the region’s eastern half. The effort is timely because the pandemic recession has rendered more glaring the region’s racial and economic inequities. The report includes a map with data portraying a dramatic regional divide in which residents east of Interstate 95 have significantly less upward mobility than those to the west. The disadvantage is most acute in majority-Black communities in Prince George’s and the District east of the Anacostia River. But can Connected DMV accomplish more than its predecessors? Our history is sprinkled with efforts to forge a common approach: The Potomac Conference. The Greater Washington Initiative. The 2030 Group. Still dividing us is the gap between east and west, identified as a challenge in a Brookings Institution report as far back as 1999. Connected DMV starts with some advantages. Its backers comprise all of the sectors, public and private, needed to make things happen. The original five supporters were the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, the military’s Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region and the Metro transit system. Its 23-member steering committee includes the top economic development officers of Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the District and the city of Alexandria. Others with seats include Pepco, Micron and United Way of the National Capital Area. Such broad representation distinguishes Connected DMV from many previous initiatives, led largely by developers and other business leaders. “None of them said, ‘Let’s get industry, academia, government and community [nonprofits] all at the table together,’ ” said Stu Solomon, president of Connected DMV. “That’s the overarching difference between this initiative and theirs.” Solomon, a former Accenture executive, and his wife, Gina Solomon, donated the initial funds for the organization. Since then, it has received grants to boost its budget to $3.5 million with a full-time staff of 22. Another advantage is the successful effort to lure Amazon HQ2 to Northern Virginia, which reinforced the importance of regional cooperation. Amazon emphasized that it expected the area’s jurisdictions to work together. That helped lead them to agree for the first time in more than 40 years to approve dedicated funding for Metro. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Still, overcoming the east-west divide, a mission the group calls its “north star,” is daunting. The report cites data showing that greater Washington, viewed as one region, does better than average in offering economic mobility — the likelihood that a child born in the area will see their income rise substantially as an adult. But that opportunity is unequally shared. Fairfax and Montgomery rank second and 12th, respectively, out of the 150 largest counties and other jurisdictions in mobility. By contrast, Prince George’s and the District rank 107th and 142nd. “The entire region should be angry about this map,” said David Iannucci, president of the Prince George’s Economic Development Corp. He blamed the disparity in large part on the unwillingness of the federal government and private companies to place offices and other facilities east of I-95. Racial redlining is widely viewed as a cause of that reluctance. “In a time when we’re talking about inclusiveness and equity, the economic opportunity information calls out for some kind of regional solution,” Iannucci said. A sign of progress would be a regional agreement that Prince George’s should host a new FBI headquarters when the agency moves from the District, as planned. Fairfax has been vying with Prince George’s for the prize. “We’re going to have to collectively agree it’s Prince George’s for the FBI,” United Way President Rosie Allen-Herring said. “The east can’t lose and the west wins every time.” Amy Liu, director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, said the region could send a strong message by signing a non-poaching agreement, in which jurisdictions would give up competing against each other for projects. The Milwaukee and Denver metropolitan areas have reached such pacts. The Connected DMV report emphasizes the need to improve the talent pipeline so residents in disadvantaged areas obtain more training and other educational opportunities to qualify for better jobs — particularly in high-tech industries with good pay and abundant openings. “The region now has the responsibility to skill and upskill residents who have been displaced by covid-19, and/or who have historically been underrepresented in high-growth technology fields,” it says. Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College, said funding was key. “It always comes back to money,” she said. The region’s community colleges need to expand, she said, because their students “are the individuals most impacted by the economic disparities that the report highlights.” Going forward, Connected DMV plans a second strategy report to propose “funding and delivery mechanisms” to improve the talent pipeline and develop a regional “brand.” It also will convene a “Regional Congress” of about 50 leaders, beginning in September and meeting four times a year, to discuss how to advance the project’s goals. The group is pushing three specific initiatives to position the region early in high-tech industries. It’s behind a proposal to build a $2.5 billion “global pandemic center” in Montgomery. It hopes to build a pilot project, possibly in Northern Virginia, to study using hydrogen as a fuel for aviation, shipping and trucking. And it wants to establish an “innovation center” to prepare the region for leadership in the cutting-edge industry of quantum computing. Prince George’s is home to two leaders in the field — the University of Maryland at College Park and the private company IonQ. “We can take this space” in quantum computing, said Victor Hoskins, president of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, who headed the team that wrote the report. “No one dominates this space. . . . We need to take advantage of this on every level.” If we do, let’s hope everybody benefits on both sides of I-95.