The Yardstick

A New Narrative about the Region’s Future

February 1, 2012 | Tags: affordable housing, D.C., development, economy, growth, housing, land use, maryland, Prince George's County, Region Forward Coalition, regionalism, transportation, urban planning, Virginia

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the region’s economic future. And it’s for a good reason. Over the past few years the prevailing narrative has been that metro Washington shines as one of the rare bright spots in a dismal national economy thanks to the protective bubble provided by the federal government.

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While much of that narrative certainly remains true, over the past few months a new discussion has also developed, one that is focused on the regional economy’s reliance on the federal government. Given that federal spending is poised to decline in relative terms, the very sector that shielded the Washington area economy may soon become its vulnerability.

The current state of affairs in Detroit, with its high unemployment and poverty rates, is an example of what can happen when a region relies too heavily on any single industry. No one is predicting that federal spending and hiring will drop off as precipitously as did the American auto industry, however, Detroit’s apparent lack of preparedness for the decline of its central economic force provides for a powerful incentive for other regions to be proactive.

A proactive metropolitan Washington is exactly what the new MWCOG Chairman Frank Principi seems to have in mind. In a commentary for Capital Business, Principi outlines how he plans to use his year at the helm of the regional organization to develop an Economic Growth & Competitiveness Plan for Metropolitan Washington.

The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein, who has been at the forefront of this discussion with a series of columns on the need for the region to diversify its economy, recently spoke to the Region Forward Coalition about this and other issues as they continue to work on implementing the Region Forward plan.

A few of the themes that Pearlstein focused on included the ongoing needs in metro Washington for more affordable housing and more regional cooperation.

Noting that exurban sprawl is both a symptom and cause of our high-cost region, Pearlstein singled out high housing costs as a particular concern. Referencing a recent study on the region’s severe shortfall of housing necessary for the region’s future workforce, Pearlstein noted that high housing costs contribute to increased prices of other goods and services produced in the region which ultimately hurts our competitiveness.

Also, quipping that “treating the Potomac River like the Potomac Ocean is silly,” Pearlstein encouraged the region’s leaders to continue to pursue increased cooperation, especially in terms of economic development. Taking the potential relocation of the FBI from the District to the suburbs as an example, Pearlstein noted that this opportunity seems ripe for Prince George’s County and its goal of increasing development near its Metro stations and that other jurisdictions should support the County’s bid, not compete with it.