Marriott’s plans to move out of their headquarters on Fernwood Drive will launch an epic battle between D.C., Maryland and Virginia for the international hotel chain. But as local and state leaders seek to retain Montgomery County’s fourth-largest employer, Marriott’s stated interest in being close to a Metro station makes this fight a little different than previous attempts to woo big companies.
For much of the 20th century, big companies favored suburban locations, like the office park where Marriott International sits today. William Whyte studied where 38 Fortune 500 companies leaving New York City relocated to, and found they all moved to areas with the same things: exclusive country clubs, high-performing schools, and room for big, lavish homes. In fact, all of those companies moved the headquarters within eight miles of the executive’s home.
That’s how Bethesda, as well as places like Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia, became major job centers: It was already a sought-after place to live, and so the heads of large companies chose to locate their offices nearby.
Lately, companies are increasingly seeking urban locations: Places with shops and restaurants, walkable and bikeable streets, and transit access that attracts young, educated workers. Urban doesn’t necessarily mean the District of Columbia. Many corporate heads still live in Maryland and Virginia (Marriott Executive Vice President Kathleen Matthews lives in Chevy Chase and is mulling a run for the area’s House seat) and Marriott says they’re considering locations throughout the region.
That new criteria should be an advantage for Montgomery County, which has long boasted the kind of high-end suburban neighborhoods where executives might choose to live, as well as walkable, transit-served urban places that their young workers may prefer.
In recent years, the county has tried to encourage a nighttime economy in the hopes that attracting young people would draw the companies who want to hire them.
There are a number of places in Montgomery County that would suit Marriott’s needs. Downtown Bethesda is a natural choice, as is downtown Silver Spring, both of which have Metro access.
But neither have a lot of office construction going on. Plans to make White Flint an urban hub are a long way from fruition, but it has a Metro station. Long-term plans for developments like Pike & Rose, North Bethesda Center and White Flint Mall do include substantial amounts of office space.
However, some things haven’t changed. Despite evidence to the contrary, Virginia has long been perceived as more business-friendly than Maryland. In recent years, Virginia beat out Maryland in landing the headquarters of Hilton Hotels, Northrup Grumman, Intelsat and Bechtel, which received tax incentives from Maryland before leaving.
And Fairfax County is catching up to Montgomery with urbanism, with plans to remake existing job centers like Tysons Corner and Merrifield as urban districts. The Silver Line has made Tysons, which was already a very attractive place for large companies, even more desirable as employees from all over the D.C. area can get there without being stuck in Beltway traffic.
As a result, Virginia has emerged as an early favorite for Marriott’s new headquarters. A list of seven potential sites includes two in D,C., four in Northern Virginia, and not a single one in Montgomery County.
It may be hard to convince Marriott bigwigs that Montgomery County is, in fact, a better place to do business.
But what if Montgomery County leaders made the case for Montgomery County as a better place?
In many white-collar fields, a lot of work happens outside the office, whether on the golf course or at the bar. Tysons may have the Silver Line. But unlike Bethesda or Silver Spring, it doesn’t have many places for an evening stroll or a round of drinks with coworkers, at least outside of the mall.
This approach might be challenging for new Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who campaigned on improving the state’s business climate, but has been ambivalent about public transit and the state’s urban areas. His repeated delays of the Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, which was ready to break ground this year, might send the wrong message to a corporation that wants to locate near a Metro station.
However, it might be the ticket to keeping Marriott in Montgomery County. We may not be able to beat Fairfax County at providing tax incentives, but we’ve got thirteen Metro stations and some great places along them. It’s time we made them part of our business strategy too.
Photo via Marriott International
Dan Reed is an urban planner who grew up in Montgomery County and remembers eating Gifford’s ice cream before it was on Bethesda Row. He sits on the board of Action Committee for Transit, an organization dedicated to sustainable transportation in Montgomery County. He also writes at Just Up The Pike, a blog about Silver Spring, and Greater Greater Washington, a regional blog about planning.