The six Democratic candidates for Montgomery County Executive met last week to debate the economic future of the county, amid a recent study showing declining trends in the county’s economic indicators.
Empower Montgomery, a nonpartisan organization that describes its mission as voter education and economic development, sponsored the forum at the Universities at Shady Grove for the candidates to respond to the organization’s report, “The Coming Storm: How Years of Economic Underperformance Are Catching Up With Montgomery County.”
Economist Anirban Basu, executive of the Baltimore-based consulting company that prepared the report, presented a bleak portrayal of the county’s economic posture. Citing factors such as high taxes, growing debt, slow job creation, high office vacancy rates, declining federal government job base, and “stagnant” economic development, Basu said the county needed “a more business-friendly environment,” including lowering taxes, bringing young people now living in DC back to the county, and “pray(ing) for Amazon” to locate its new headquarters here. (Amazon has included Montgomery County on its short list of potential new locations.)
The candidates settled into two camps. David Blair, William Frick and Rose Krasnow leveraged the report’s findings to target shortcomings in the county’s business development policies and portray themselves as “outsiders” who could fix them. County Council members George Leventhal, Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich acknowledged concerns and room for improvement, but said the report only tells part of the story. They emphasized the county’s strengths and their own experience.
“This should outrage you!” said Frick, a Bethesda businessman and majority leader of the state House of Delegates. “We have a problem. It’s not just a report, it’s an indictment of the folks up here that have been part of this and allowed this to happen.”
“We can do so much better,” said Blair, CEO of a publicly-traded health care company. “A fire alarm has been going off and county officials have been putting earplugs in.”
But Berliner, County Council president, said the economic climate “isn’t quite as bleak as what is suggested,” noting that Montgomery has outperformed Fairfax County in a number of important economic indicators. “The glass is half-full and half-empty.”
“This is a great county, I’m proud to be from Montgomery County,” said Leventhal, praising the county’s “steady and excellent leadership.” He said he appreciated the report and the need for “real dialogue and collaborative discussion with the business community,” but emphasized that “this is an excellent place to invest and we need to do a better job of marketing our strengths.”
The candidates generally agreed on several issues that inhibit business growth in the county: high taxes, especially the energy tax; a complex regulatory structure that is sometimes perceived as hostile to business; and the liquor control system by which the county is one of the few local jurisdictions in the United States that has government-controlled alcohol distribution.
“We keep kicking ourselves,” said Krasnow, deputy director of the Maryland National Park & Planning Commission and the former mayor of Rockville. She said she wants to change the “mentality” of the way the county government regulates business. “We should be working all along to make sure we understand the full impact of legislation” on economic development, she said.
The county government’s “culture of ‘no’ is the number one challenge,” said Frick. He said businesses don’t trust Montgomery County because it frequently adds regulations and taxes. “The energy tax was supposed to be temporary to deal with an acute crisis, yet it’s still here,” he said, and called for the county to eliminate its “broken liquor control system.”
Elrich said, “We need to look at this holistically,” cautioning that changes in some revenue and regulatory areas could have consequences in others. “We need a deeper dive into what the problems are.” He favored analysis of individual code items to weed out those that “don’t make sense” or are duplicative.
Berliner noted that he was previously a small business owner and said there is “nothing more important than growing our economy” and “we … need to make it easy for businesses to succeed.” He agreed that council should reduce the energy tax and get the county out of the liquor control business.
Krasnow said she wants to work with the business community to make the county “a leader in research and development” and suggested turning low-occupancy office parks into “vibrant mixed-use spaces.”
Blair proposed using some of the county’s unoccupied real estate to create incubators in several specific growth areas, including health care services, hospitality and “green” industries, as well as giving grants to new businesses in those industries to locate here.
Leventhal said the county should emphasize its “extraordinary international population” to market itself as an international business center and “explain to employers around the world that we can do business in your language.”
But the insider/outsider theme separating the candidates was often repeated.
“Experience matters,” said Leventhal, echoing similar statements by Berliner and Elrich. “I understand what every agency does. It’s not simple; this is a big, complex operation.”
Blair stated the outsiders’ case succinctly. “If you elect the same people with the same policies, you’ll have the same problems.”