Letter to the Editor: A Call for ‘Inclusive Prosperity’

With the City elections firmly behind us and as we embark on a new year, I call on the Mayor and City Council to focus 2020 on the pursuit of an economic development strategy that is centered around the advancement of “inclusive prosperity.”

What do I mean by “inclusive prosperity?” It is predicated on the notion that maximizing growth (aimed at attracting new residents and businesses) and maximizing opportunity (aimed at supporting current residents and businesses) need not, and should not, be a mutually exclusive, “either/or” proposition. Instead, it is imperative that both be pursued simultaneously so that one has the ability to reinforce the other. By focusing exclusively on maximizing growth, the City may find itself exacerbating already pre-existing racial and economic disparities (as apparent in the results of the City’s Visioning Exercise), potentially making the City less attractive to new residents and businesses. However, by focusing exclusively on maximizing opportunity, the City unequivocally would lose out on new investments that could help bolster the prospects of current residents and businesses.

There are many creative ways in which the City could promote “inclusive prosperity,” not least of which is through public procurement. In fact, with the millions of dollars that the City spends annually on goods and services across its various departments, the promotion of a more equitable contracting and procurement process could perhaps do more to advance “inclusive prosperity” than any other tool that the City has at its disposal. It is easy to forget just how important support from the public sector has been, and continues to be, to the success of many of our champion industries. Is it any small wonder why the City, with its proximity to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has become such a haven for biotechnology? (As the largest public funder of biomedical research worldwide, NIH alone invests more than $32 billion each year through grants and other financial backing.)

In much the same way, many companies across the DC metropolitan region (and even beyond) obtain a significant portion of their annual business from City contracting, enabling them to generate the revenue necessary to hire additional employees, purchase new equipment, and make other investments essential for growth. However, because bidding for local procurement projects can be a cumbersome, tedious, and expensive process, many of the City’s own small business enterprises (SBEs), particularly those owned by women and people of color, fail to take advantage of these opportunities, or lose out to larger companies when they attempt to do so.

The City can change this dynamic by making a concerted effort to “level the playing field” in the procurement process. In this regard, the City should consider setting equity targets for SBEs; streamlining certification processes (and providing resources to SBEs to become certified); unbundling large contracts into smaller, more manageable subcontracts; helping subcontractors become prime contractors; and reducing or eliminating financial burdens, such as excessive bonding or insurance requirements.

The City also should consider collaborating with its anchor institutions on undertaking any of the above initiatives, as they too are likely to have their own procurement programs and would welcome the backing and support of the City on advancing this endeavor.

In doing so, the City could better assist SBEs realize their full potential, which would increase not only the net worth for its owners, but also, because of their proclivity to hire and invest their capital locally, the overall economic activity of our entire community. At the same time, the City would be able to show prospective employers that it has reliable SBEs from which they also can solicit needed goods and services, adding that benefit to the already long list of reasons why Gaithersburg is a great place to start and grow your business.

—Jason Wilcox, Kentlands resident and member of the City of Gaithersburg Educational Enrichment Committee

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