Local lawmakers weren’t surprised to learn that Prince George’s County is now leading Montgomery in job creation.
They said it pointed to the urgent need for economic development as Montgomery County works to reverse a sluggish economy and stubborn reputation as a less-than-optimal place to do business.
“It highlights the fact that we’re in an increasingly competitive regional economy,” said Council Member Andrew Friedson, a first-term legislator who’s made fiscal policy a focus during his time in office. “The challenge before us is that we have to step up our game in a way that perhaps we’ve never had to before.”
The Washington Post reported Monday that Prince George’s had become the leading job creator in the Maryland suburbs, beating Montgomery County over the last several years.
The article cited statistics compiled by the Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University. Between 2013 and 2018, Prince George’s added 21,236 jobs, a growth of 7.1%..
Over the time period, Montgomery County added 19,540 jobs, a 4.3% increase.
The most recently available data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that employment in Prince George’s County continued to expand faster than in Montgomery in the last fiscal year. Between June 2018 and June 2019, employment in Prince George’s County grew 1.8% — the biggest change in the state — compared to 0.1% in Montgomery County.
The new indicators are a sign that Prince George’s is making a concentrated effort to grow its local economy, said Stephen Fuller, the now-retired founder of the George Mason economics institute. But they also don’t tell the full story of the region’s economy.
“One of the points is that there’s a difference between the number of jobs and quality of jobs,” Fuller said in a phone interview on Monday.
Montgomery County still leads the state in overall employment and average weekly wages, which, in 2019, remained roughly $281 higher than in Prince George’s County, according to federal data. The Washington Post reported that in 2018, the average salary in Montgomery was $75,650 versus $58,219 in Prince George’s County.
“That’s not to belittle what’s been accomplished there,” Fuller said of the gain in Prince George’s. “But both Montgomery County and Prince George’s County are underperforming in the region. And the vitality has shifted to nearby areas like Northern Virginia.”
The comparison between the Maryland and Virginia suburbs has grown sharper since Arlington beat out Montgomery County as the new site for Amazon’s second headquarters. The county has experienced its own financial woes since the decision was announced, battling a budget shortfall in early 2019 and falling projections for economic growth.
For years, the county coasted off its reputation as a D.C.-adjacent suburb with a strong federal research presence and high quality of life. “I think, for a while, there was a little bit of complacency,” said Council Member Nancy Navarro, who unveiled a new economic development platform at the end of her term as council president.
But over the last few years, Prince George’s County has offered millions in business incentives and focused on transit-oriented development, aided by more available land that sells for less than it would in Montgomery County, Navarro said.
Both she and current Council President Sidney Katz emphasized that Montgomery has considerable assets it could leverage to attract businesses. They include a strong biotech sector and highly ranked public school system, coupled with high government investment in amenities and social services, Katz said.
But the council’s new economic development platform emphasizes investment in transit and affordable housing to attract new businesses and workers to the area. Individual council members have their own priority areas, from translating federal research into corporate development — in the case of Council Member Hans Riemer — to boosting economic development in North Bethesda.
The latter is a particular interest of Friedson’s, who compared Amazon’s interest in the White Flint Mall site — which Montgomery County pitched to the company — to being nominated for an Academy Award. Montgomery County was one of 20 nationwide finalists for Amazon’s second headquarters, but was not chosen.
“Even if you don’t win the Oscar, you can still sell a lot of movies,” he said. The county can attract new businesses to the area, he argued, especially with investments to existing infrastructure.
One of Friedson’s biggest priorities is restoring funding to a northern entrance to the White Flint Metro Station, which County Executive Marc Elrich removed in the latest version of his capital improvements plan. But he also noted positive developments, including an investment in bus rapid transit on Md. 355 and the recent announcement of Ben Wu as the new CEO for the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation.
Elrich could not be reached for comment on Monday.
In September, the county hired former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman to attract greater higher education investment. Katz said there was a greater focus on economic development among council members and Elrich, which made it easier to collaborate on needed changes.
“We don’t tell our story enough in the way that we should be telling it,” he said. “We were already aware of the problem. And I think when we became aware of it, people started to realize we needed to do something dramatically different.”