2021 | Politics

Montgomery County’s economic health is a key issue in county executive race

Elrich, Blair, Riemer have different approaches, but agree more must be done

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From left, Marc Elrich, David Blair, Hans Riemer

File photos

This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. Nov. 10, 2021, to correct a reference to Amazon’s new headquarters.

A key issue in the contested Montgomery County executive’s race is how to increase business activity and job growth in a flagging economy.

All three candidates for the top job in the county — incumbent Marc Elrich, Council Member Hans Riemer and businessman David Blair — have plans to boost economic development.

While the candidates for county executive are approaching the issue in different ways, all candidates agree Montgomery County must rev up its economic engine.

How much — and at what cost to other priorities — is likely to be a lively debate on the campaign trail leading to June’s primary election.

Blair, who narrowly lost to Elrich for county executive four years ago, has the direst view of the county’s economic health.

Last week, Blair released his “vision” for change, a report called “Better-Paying Jobs, Better Business Environment, and a Better Future for All.”

It said that according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Montgomery County lost more than 20,000 jobs from 2007 to 2020 while the rest of the region added more than 90,000.

“We’re clearly behind other jurisdictions,” said Blair, a businessman.

Yet the county’s job losses were all from 2020, the first year of the pandemic and a time that many businesses — within and outside the county — were forced to shut down and the unemployment rate soared.

The county actually added more than 13,000 jobs in the 13 years before the pandemic. That job growth was smaller than that of Fairfax County. As of the 2020 U.S, Census, Montgomery County’s population is about 1.06 million and Fairfax County’s is about 1.15 million.

Fairfax added more than 36,000 in that time period. And Loudoun County added more than 46,000 jobs as it evolved from a rural enclave to one that has attracted defense contractors like Raytheon and tech and information companies like MCI.

Montgomery County, however, has added more jobs than Prince George’s County and other jurisdictions.

Still, Blair said residents of Montgomery County are leaving for neighboring jurisdictions.
“And it’s not the weather that’s driving people out of Montgomery County,” he said.

In his economic plan, Blair proposes cutting red tape for the business permitting process, providing more small business lending programs that would aid minority-owned enterprises, boosting local chambers of commerce, and increasing local procurement from a current 11.7 percent of county contracts to 15 percent.

Blair also promises to increase the county’s life science and bio health industries, saying Montgomery — despite being home to the National Institutes of Health — is losing these high-paying jobs to Fairfax County.

“Montgomery County is lagging in both the investment and infrastructure necessary to capture the share of the life sciences sector we should be given our rich talent pool and proximity to NIH and the federal government,” his report said.

Blair also proposes to boost the county’s hospitality industry, revitalize Georgia Avenue and make Silver Spring “the arts and entertainment hub” of the county.

Elrich dismisses Blair’s report and his political rival’s assessment of the county’s economic health. But he agrees that Fairfax County has done some things better than the county he’s running.

“Fairfax County’s smart growth is smarter than Montgomery County’s” Elrich said of the way Tysons Corner is being developed.

Elrich was elected in 2018. Nearly two years of his four-year term have been bedeviled by the pandemic and its forced shutdowns of local economies. He also said he was hurt by unexpected deficits in the county budget in his first year in office.

And then there’s the disappointment of losing the new Amazon headquarters to Northern Virginia.

“Virginia understood that what Amazon wanted was something different,” Elrich said, citing Fairfax County’s proposals to boost education and its high-tech industries.

Elrich is taking a page from that Virginia county. Last week, he sent a bill to the General Assembly that would eliminate the impact tax that land developers must pay before they break ground, replacing it with a development district tax with different rates for different land uses — with residential properties likely paying less and commercial properties more.

The new taxing system would be similar to the one used by Fairfax County and would create a new stream of revenue Elrich could use for bonding purposes, allowing him to borrow more money for county schools and other priorities.

The General Assembly would have to approve legislation allowing the taxing changes before Elrich can put his plan into effect.

Like Blair, Elrich has an economic plan. But unlike Blair, Elrich said, “I’m very optimistic in the direction we’re going.”

The county executive said he’s already taken steps to streamline the permitting process and to create a preference for local, county businesses in the procurement process.

Elrich’s economic plan also includes creating life science centers in White Flint and White Oak and to establish graduate-level life science and tech courses from the University of Maryland at The Universities at Shady Grove.

Riemer also said Virginia’s job growth is threatening Montgomery County’s sustainability and that any economic growth in the county is occurring at a “sluggish pace.”

“Everybody knows that Virginia is booming and Montgomery County is close to stagnating,” he said.

Riemer’s economic plan includes enhancing local Metro stations and rebuilding Rockville Pike to become a “walkable, transit-oriented community.” He also wants to spur development along the proposed light-rail Purple Line that would run from New Carrollton to Bethesda.

Riemer’s plan would attract new businesses to the area and establish 6,000 units of what he has termed affordable housing along the corridor.

Like Blair and Elrich, Riemer is campaigning on boosting the county’s biohealth industry. He also wants to lure new technology companies to the county, mentioning those that chose to establish themselves in Virginia — Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook.

And, like Blair, Riemer said Virginia is starting to compete when it comes to biohealth. “Red alert here!” he said.

In his first campaign video, which has a mostly upbeat narrative and is aimed to introduce Riemer to the district, he accuses Elrich of “being stuck in the past and anti-business.”

An at-large member of the County Council since he was elected in 2010, Riemer conceded that “the federal presence has been stronger” in the county since the NIH budget is growing again, and restrictions on other federal spending, known as sequestration, have been lifted.

But, like his rivals in the county executive’s race, Riemer said the county must grow private industry jobs, too.

“Strengthening Montgomery County’s economic future is the core of my campaign,” he said.

Meanwhile, pro-development groups are seizing on the debate about job growth in the county to promote their calls for a more business-friendly environment.

Jacob Sesker is an economic development consultant who has worked for Empower Montgomery, a nonprofit backed by several local businessmen and developers. (Blair is a former member of Empower Montgomery.)

Sesker said the county’s culture and government is “hostile to business and development” and that must change if the county wants to improve social services and fight economic disparities. 

“How do you pay for these services if you don’t develop new stuff?” Sesker asked. “The answer is ‘your taxes will rise.’”