Executives Knock County’s Economic Development Approach

Executives Knock County’s Economic Development Approach

Council gets an earful after reaching out to businesses for ideas

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From left, Council member Andrew Friedson, MCEDC CEO David Petr, Council member Hans Riemer and Council member Will Jawando

Dan Schere

A group of about 20 business owners delivered a message to Montgomery County’s chief economic development agency during a meeting Wednesday morning: the county must rebrand itself as a destination for tech companies rather than government employees and contractors.

The meeting was the first of several planned discussions between the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the County Council and the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp., which was formed in 2015 as a public-private partnership in place of the county’s Department of Economic Development.

Committee chairman Hans Riemer said he plans to convene the meetings at least quarterly, or even once per month, to “hear what the business community has to say about the county’s progress.”

Montgomery has long battled a perception that it has an anti-business climate, which has been exacerbated recently by a series of reports that show Montgomery is falling behind its counterparts in Northern Virginia, which recently landed one of Amazon’s highly-coveted headquarters locations. The online retailer is expected to bring in 25,000 jobs over the course of 10 years.

David Petr, the CEO of the economic development agency is stepping down in September after three years on the job. A replacement has not been named.

Some of the CEOs at Wednesday’s meeting cited the potential to increase the county’s private biotechnology industry, but said the issue is that the county has not been branded as a technology center in the way that other places around the country have, such as Boston and Silicon Valley in  California.

Jeff Galvin, the CEO of Rockville-based American Gene Technologies, which develops genetic medicines for diseases such as HIV and liver cancer, said it is a matter of getting more wealthy investors to understand that taking a business risk would yield better results. Boston and Silicon Valley, he said, have had investors pour in the requisite amount of money, even in potentially risky situations.

“And so they’ll pony up the money and they recognize that, ‘Wow, if three out of my 10 investments works out I’m going to be telling great stories at the club about how successful I am. Around here, people are like, ‘wow, if my wins are three out of 10, man I’m going to be bankrupt,” he said.

Galvin, who has worked in both Boston and the Bay area, said venture capital is the only element of business that is missing from the county. The county has the education and transportation resources, he said, to compete with other, more known technology centers, even saying that the corridor between Frederick, Rockville and Baltimore could become “DNA valley.”

“Money is everything here. That’s what’s causing things to die on the vine,” he said.

Anjali Kataria, the CEO of the Bethesda-based healthcare technology company Mytonomy, agreed that quality of life was not the issue in the county. But inking deals, she said, takes longer in Montgomery County than in other jurisdictions.

“We should focus on how we create economic incentives to exponentially increase the number of tech companies that are setting up here,” she said.

Dusty Rood, the CEO of Rodgers Consulting in Germantown, said the county’s business issue is partially a quality of life issue for those in their 20s and 30s.

“We’re losing that profile in this county…. Is it a housing affordability problem, is it a transportation problem, is it quality of life? It’s probably all of those things,” he said.

Committee member Andrew Friedson said the county needs to change the perception that it is a place steeped in government jobs.

“People don’t say, ‘I’m moving to Montgomery County or the D.C. area for anything but government,” he said.

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

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