2021 | Government

Report commissioned by county’s Economic Development Corporation calls for action

Report recommends 10 actions to spur economic growth

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A new report calls Montgomery County to take 10 actions to spur economic growth, ranging from creating a pandemic defense center to preparing a quantum-ready workforce. 

The report, titled “Connecting the Dots: Accelerating Economic Growth in Montgomery County, MD” was finalized by a 20-member economic advisory panel of business leaders countywide, and commissioned by the county’s Economic Development Corporation. 

The panel co-chairs were Norman Augustine, retired Chairman and CEO of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, and DeRionne Pollard, former president of Montgomery College and current president of Nevada State College.

The panel made 10 recommendations that elected officials, business leaders, nonprofits and other groups should consider to improve the county’s economic outlook:

  • Add more laboratory infrastructure, including up to two million square feet of space for the growing life sciences sector
  • Build a global pandemic prevention and biodefense center 
  • Create an incubator for the hospital tech sector, including for startups
  • Make a quantum computing curriculum and regional cluster to help create a quantum-ready workforce
  • Draft an economic development plan for areas along the Purple Line corridor, a light-rail transit project from Bethesda to New Carrollton 
  • Start a public-private entrepreneurship innovation center, with $1 million
  • Change the county’s business incubator network to better support local incubator companies and entrepreneurship efforts
  • Spend $1 million on marketing to rebrand economic development countywide
  • Identify ways to improve customer service and responsiveness through private sector customer service experts
  • Establish a Competitiveness Council for the county to identify ways the county excels and lags behind regional and national competitors

Ben Wu, the president and CEO of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, which released the report, said in an interview Wednesday that it shows that local leaders need to have a “sense of urgency” when trying to solve the county’s economic issues.

The county has assets, including in the biohealth and biotech industries, to tackle many of its future challenges in attracting high-paying jobs and preventing job loss, among others, Wu said. But it also is “a victim of its own success” in that it is running out of space for companies to do that work — which is why the panel suggested up to two million additional square feet of space. 

“If we can’t accommodate their growth and their desire to come here, then we won’t be able to satisfy the ability for us to expand our industry sector in life sciences,” Wu said. 

The report also recommends a pandemic prevention and biodefense center, given the county’s strength in the health and biotech sectors. Wu said the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and many companies are examples of why the area is poised for such a project.

“I think the panel wasn’t just calling out for a center, just because they thought it’d be cool,” Wu said. “They were calling out for a center … because they understood how the life science assets in Montgomery County … could play a significant role in helping to prevent pandemics in the future.”

But outside of the county’s successes, the report also states that businesses can have a hard time establishing themselves in Montgomery County. 

“While it should be expected that there will be examples of similar issues raised with state and local governments in virtually every community in the country, Montgomery County suffers from what appears to be a chronic perception of a negative business climate,” the report states.

Wu said that issue has been in previous reports, too, and that businesses often find the regulatory processes difficult to navigate. The report also states that the high costs of starting a business, rising housing costs and increasing business taxes could be leading to that perception.

County Council Member Andrew Friedson said the report is a good extension of legislation the council passed in May to strengthen the county’s economic development strategy.

Like Wu, Friedson said Montgomery County has many assets, including in the biohealth and biotech sectors, to ensure future growth.

A zoning text amendment Friedson sponsored was introduced to the council earlier this week. It aims to allow more companies in that sector to locate here.

The zoning text amendment sets up a framework for how biohealth companies can set up their businesses in the county, and aims to streamline the regulatory process for new facilities or those increasing their capacity by 50,000 square feet or more.

“It takes a similar framework to what we put in place for Amazon in 2018,” Friedson said in an interview. “We’re saying if it’s good enough for Amazon, it’s good enough for the most important growth industry we have in the county.”

He added that he understands the challenges businesses can face, but that his zoning text amendment is hopefully one of many improvements the county can make.

“Some of it is perception, some of it is reality, but when it comes to economic development, perception is reality. … The [zoning text amendment] that we introduced is one recent example of a substantive change to make it dramatically easier to build biohealth facilities here,” Friedson said. 

He and Wu said all local partners, whether in the public, private or nonprofit sector, must work cooperatively when facing economic development challenges.

“That was also one of the expectations that the panel had … that by issuing this report, that would be a rallying cry for everyone to come together,” Wu said.

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