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WBJ: Some of Greater Washington's top leaders have a vision for the post-Covid economy.

Alex Koma | @AlexKomaWBJ December 8, 2020, 8:00 am EST.

See original post at WBJ here.

Calls for more regional thinking around Greater Washington were commonplace before the pandemic hit. But the coronavirus crisis has made the importance of collaboration clearer than ever, according to a group of D.C.-area business leaders. The group, called Connected DMV, released its report Tuesday on how to strengthen the region's economy post-Covid. The report, authored by dozens of D.C.-area business executives, politicians, academics and others, as part of a “strategic renewal” task force, calls for more regional thinking on everything from economic development to coronavirus containment to new regional research centers to help build a more resilient economy in Greater Washington. The task force proposes some options for regional collaboration related to Covid-19 response — the potential for jurisdictions to work together on contact tracing, and partnering governments with businesses to test new HVAC technologies, as two examples — but the majority of its recommendations focus on long-term options to create an economic ecosystem in the region that’s stronger than it was pre-Covid.

“To continue to try to fix things the way we have in the past: you won’t find us doing that,” Stu Solomon, the president and CEO of Connected DMV, said in an interview. “Industry can’t do it alone. It’s got to be industry, government, academia and the community working together.”

An elusive economic development goal The report’s first recommendation is perhaps its most ambitious: establish an economic development strategy that encompasses the entire D.C. region. That is no small feat — and not a new idea. The challenge has always been convincing the region’s localities that business attraction and retention isn’t simply a zero-sum game, pitting D.C. against its suburbs and those suburbs against each other.

Still, the task force sees the possibility for a sea change, and it picked Victor Hoskins, the head of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, to lead its economic development work.

Hoskins certainly has the experience to do so, considering his success in convincing Arlington and Alexandria to work together to win Amazon’s second headquarters. And his history working in both D.C. and Prince George’s County as well means he has the relationships to bring people together.

Solomon is encouraged by the work by Northern Virginia’s localities to team up on economic development, partially spearheaded by Hoskins, and similar efforts among the Maryland suburbs. He expects the task force to be able to “create ground rules on cooperation,” and bridge the gaps between these new alliances. “The starting point is to all get at the same table,” Solomon said. “And we will lead early with talent. Because everyone can agree, talent attraction is something the region needs, not to be losing people to other areas for better pay or higher opportunity.”

Regional research But the task force believes that getting localities to work together is only one piece of the puzzle. They’re also calling for partnerships that put government leaders together with university officials and high-tech industries to create regional research centers in two emerging areas: pandemic prevention and quantum computing.

BioHealth Innovation, a nonprofit that supports biotech companies, has committed to working with the Maryland Tech Council and the University System of Maryland to establish a “Global Pandemic Prevention and Biodefense Center” somewhere in the region. The center’s first task would be stockpiling antibodies for the top 100 pathogens most likely to result in pandemics, and then spinning off research related to that work.

Though it may be a bit less ripped from the headlines, the task force is also interested in creating a “Potomac Quantum Innovation Center” to support quantum computing research. The group has yet to identify specific partners for that, but Manny Rouvelas, task force member and a partner at the law firm K&L Gates, has committed to convening people around the issue.

The goal of each center will be to create a “whole ecosystem” around those issue areas, Solomon said. Once more students and researchers are working on these complex problems, he thinks it’s natural that more companies will flock to the region to take advantage of that talent.

“We need to come together to build these workforce capabilities now,” Solomon said. “The ability to build economic development follows from that.”

Covid collaboration But those goals are firmly long-term ones. While the task force wanted to leave the work of reopening the economy to local governments themselves, Solomon sees some room for work on Covid-related issues around the margins.

For instance, the report suggests the private sector could help local governments create contact-tracing systems that are a bit more “interoperable,” ensuring that health officials can trace positive cases across jurisdictional boundaries. The task force even envisions “accelerated pilots” pairing companies that sell innovative HVAC systems or disinfecting technologies with schools or other community institutions to test out the best methods for preventing Covid-19’s spread indoors. Solomon also believes the companies he’s working with can ease the stress on the region’s transit systems whenever workers start coming back to the office. He’s circulating an agreement that large companies can sign to give employees more flexibility about when and how they work to avoid overwhelming local roads and trains with a renewed surge in demand.

That will be a particularly important balance to strike to help keep Metro afloat, which will need revenue from riders but will likely be forced to offer severely reduced service as people return to the office.

It may be difficult to convene so many large businesses with competing interests around a shared goal like that, but Solomon hopes this task force is up to the challenge. He likens it to how Major League Baseball helps all the teams get organized — without that central, convening force, it would be hard to put on a season.

“If each team had to get its own umpires, do their own scheduling, could they all come together to play a championship?” Solomon said. “We need that MLB for Greater Washington.”