2022 | Government

Council supports economic development strategic plan

Some want more outreach to women- and minority-owned businesses

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The Montgomery County Council expressed support on Tuesday for an economic development plan to strengthen current industries and attract new ones.

The county’s Economic Development Corporation, with various partners, created the report, which focuses on four key priorities:

  • Accelerate economic drivers like the life sciences industry while expanding other industries, such as hospitality technology, quantum computing and cybersecurity
  • Develop more workforce and educational opportunities for residents
  • Building more livable, accessible communities that connect people to jobs
  • Create an inclusive economy and business ecosystem

There are dozens of more specific ideas under those four headings.

County Council Members complimented Ben Wu and Bill Tompkins — CEO and chief operating officer of the Economic Development Corporation, respectively — for the work on the report, but also recommended more of a focus in areas such as business engagement and supporting affordable housing.

The report recommended that the county “aggressively recruit” more life sciences companies, create a pandemic-preparedness research center for vaccine development, and establish incubators for hospitality technology startups.

It also recommends creating educational programs to support a future quantum technology workforce, along with marketing the cybersecurity industry as a top sector countywide. There also are suggestions to address housing shortages throughout the workforce, whether through amended zoning for higher-density housing or partnering with the county’s largest employers to provide housing for employees.

Council Member Craig Rice said there could be more outreach to businesses, especially those owned by women or minorities.

He said that through conversations with his wife, Tia, he found that many minority-owned businesses recently lost their leases in a local office park and had to scramble to find new leases.

He specifically asked if the Economic Development Corporation contacted every business in the county and what outreach has been done. Tompkins said the corporation sent letters to thousands of businesses, but agreed that more could be done to reach others.

Rice cited an NPR story on the rise of small businesses and entrepreneurship in recent years, despite the pandemic. He said the county should capitalize on that opportunity.

The report has recommendations for increasing opportunities for businesses owned by women and minorities, such as creating partnership programs between the county and financial institutions to increase access to capital and training in accounting, legal and marketing services.

Council Member Sidney Katz — who owned a department store in Gaithersburg for decades — said the corporation’s report is a good start, but there’s more to do to help small businesses start up.

He recommended a 311 type of system for small businesses — a phone number for businesses to call in a time of crisis, such as what Rice described with business leases expiring unexpectedly.

The business climate needs to be simple for entrepreneurs, Katz said.

“Most people who have a dream don’t want to read a thick document to get there. They want to run with the ball,” he said.

Tompkins said officials are looking at how to further help small businesses navigate the permitting process, something larger operations often have a staff to do.

Some council members said there needs to be more of an emphasis on affordable housing and how it connects to economic development. Council Vice President Evan Glass said it’s important that people in working-class jobs such as firefighter, police officer, and hospital nurse can live close to their jobs.

Even with the economic development strategic plan, Council President Gabe Albornoz recommended that the Economic Development Corporation and other partners have a more streamlined version for businesses. Wu said he and his colleagues would help lead that effort.

Albornoz said a streamlined version should be made available soon to help businesses facing competition around the Washington, D.C., region.

“We need our business community to be singing from the hills all the great things from this document, and to do that, we need a consolidated and coordinated effort,” he said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com