The Montgomery County Council. Credit: Bethesda Beat File Photo

Montgomery County Council members expressed concern over poor employment statistics Tuesday during a meeting with the director of the county’s privately-run economic development office.

A recent council report cited data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing employment declines in 11 private-sector jobs categories in Montgomery County, while eight added jobs between 2008 and 2017. Areas that lost jobs were mainly agriculture, construction and industrial activities while gains included education and health care industries.

The meeting came one week after a report from a regional economic studies institute said 4,700 jobs were created in Montgomery and Frederick counties during fiscal 2018, less than half the amount projected, and noted Northern Virginia’s economic activity was outpacing Montgomery’s.

The county did away with its in-house economic development department in 2015, and created the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp. as a public-private partnership. Since the change, the county has more than tripled the budgeted amount for economic development. More than $5 million was appropriated in fiscal 2019.

“We need to know your metrics and hold you accountable for your metrics,” Council member Hans Riemer told economic development President and CEO David Petr.

Petr was giving a presentation to the council one week after going on a business recruitment mission at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, which brings together film, technology and music industry leaders as well as government officials from across the country.

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Petr said in an interview that he made contact with 40 companies during the weeklong conference, of which a few said they were considering settling in Montgomery County in the next 18 months. Petr declined to name the companies, but said they were in the technology industry.

“Perhaps there will be a few additional [companies] in the next few years,” he said.

Petr said many companies he spoke with had never heard of Montgomery County, but were more attracted to settling in the county after they were told of its proximity to the nation’s capital.

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“We would have to use Washington, D.C. as that kind of location benchmark. When we could tell them the scale of business here, they were very impressed by the number of biotech firms, the amount of federal spending, the size of the county budget,” he said.

Petr said previous economic development leaders did not always effectively market the county to outside companies, and as a result the county’s job numbers suffered.

“We’re not going to see the results of our work for a little while longer. So some of the results that you see today are historical numbers that were the result of efforts before my time,” he said.

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Riemer said he wanted to work with Petr and the economic development corporation, but that he worries that the Department of Housing and Community Affairs is not included in the county’s overall economic development strategy, in part because County Executive Marc Elrich has not appointed a permanent director.

“The county executive has said that’s [economic development] his big priority. So I’m waiting for a plan. I’d like a plan on how the county executive and the executive branch is going to move the ball forward,” he said.

“These bigger trends with these job numbers are very concerning… because the trend line is not positive with this economy,” Reimer said.  “I think there’s a lot of work to be done in White Flint. There’s more we can do in downtown Silver Spring. There’s so much that we need to be doing together.”

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Council President Nancy Navarro also expressed concern at the piecemeal approach being taken to economic development.

“Our constituents don’t have the insight into who’s doing what. To me this is why this conversation is so important. So to really get some insights into what you’re doing is really important,” she said.

“We don’t want to be an extension of the economic development strategy,” Navarro said. “We want to be part of the economic development strategy of Montgomery County. That’s what we run on and get elected on. That’s the reality time and time again when we’re out there.”

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Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com