Frank Principi, Chairman, COG Board of Directors
The idea that metropolitan Washington should diversify its economy is not new, though the urgency behind the notion is at an all time high. Nearly half a million jobs are threatened by sequestration, while a combination of the country’s “fiscal cliff” and ongoing political gridlock jeopardize future growth.
Though the presence of the federal government shielded this region from the worst effects of the recession, many areas are now catching up and even surpassing us in performance. Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that metro Washington ranked 13th out of 15 major metro areas last year in terms of job growth.
And even if Congress does manage to prevent sequestration from cutting up to 450,000 jobs from metro Washington’s employment rolls, the current economic and political environment means that federal spending and employment is not likely to reach its recent levels in the near future.
Knowing all this, the COG Board of Directors decided to make improving regional economic growth and competitiveness our key focus for 2012. We spent months talking with experts, community and business leaders, local officials, and others to find out what we do well, what holds back our growth, and how metro Washington can become more competitive relative to our national and international rival regions.
Through this process, we learned that the region must:
- Increase investment in our transportation infrastructure: By identifying sustainable funding sources, we can pursue increased investment in the transportation priorities necessary for continued economic growth and competitiveness. Already overcrowded Metrorail cars and packed highways won’t stand up to the challenge presented by the additional 1.6 million residents projected to move to metro Washington by 2040.
- Create more strong centers: The office park appears increasingly obsolete, while mixed-use Activity Centers are becoming more attractive for employers and employees alike. Vibrant centers where people can live, work and play are already a competitive advantage of our region. While other regions are scrambling to replicate our success, we need to build on this important strength.
- Break the worker-skills imbalance: By preparing our region’s workers for current and future jobs, employers will know they’ll have a skilled workforce in metro Washington. We’ve got the most educated population in the nation – report after report confirms that. However, experts and employers cite a mismatch between workers’ skills and those needed, meaning they often have to look outside the region to fill positions.
- Update its image: By highlighting the region’s wealth of innovation, research, and small businesses, metro Washington can move beyond its image as simply a “government town” and adopt a brand that more accurately reflects our economic diversity.
- Improve its relationship with its federal partners: Yes, we need to diversify our economy (and highlight that diversity through a new brand), but the federal government remains our “anchor tenant.” They have a vested interest in improving the region’s transportation system and increasing the supply of affordable housing.
The region needs to update its image. Too many people still think of metro Washington as a government town. A new brand should highlight the region’s wealth of entrepreneurialism and innovation.
We aren’t calling for the creation of a new regional entity or initiative to address these urgent economic needs. Instead, we believe COG has the capacity and relationships to lead this effort. COG will advance Economy Forward, a five-point plan, to:
- Implement a transportation priorities plan to garner broad-based public support and produce sustainable funding strategies: The Transportation Planning Board at COG will develop, with strong input from stakeholders and the public, a list of 10-15 top priority strategies and identify specific funding sources to make the strategies a reality.
- Implement a plan that will guide more efficient investments in the region’s Activity Centers so that more of them have the right mix of housing, jobs and access to transit: COG’s Region Forward Coalition will develop an investment plan for use by local governments, developers, transit agencies, philanthropists, and other groups to guide their planning and investment decisions in the region’s Activity Centers.
- Undertake an industry and labor market analysis to ensure that workforce development programs are training people for current and future growth sectors. The Region Forward Coalition will lead this data collection with the goal of better aligning workforce and economic development efforts.
- Develop a new regional brand based on what we learn during the industry and labor market analysis. The brand will promote metro Washington’s economic diversity and tell our story to the outside world.
- Work with senior Administration officials to identify an official to serve as a federal-regional liaison to improve partnership: While the region benefits from a close relationship with its Congressional delegation, we also need to build a strong and ongoing relationship with presidential Administrations. Such a partnership would help regional leaders better understand and mitigate the impact of federal cuts and plan future federal investments when opportunities arise. The COG Board and leadership will lead this part of the effort.
While these actions cover a wide range of subjects, they are interrelated and must be addressed as a whole. Failure in any one area is not an option and will hold the region back from its full economic potential.
In the face of sequestration, reduced federal spending, and gridlock on Capitol Hill, there is plenty that our region can do—and must do—to ensure our future competitiveness and prosperity. With the recent adoption of Economy Forward, an offshoot of Region Forward, COG and its partners at the Region Forward Coalition and the Transportation Planning Board are pledging to refocus our current and upcoming projects to move our economy forward.