July-August 2009

Best Place to Live

Is the Bethesda area the best place in the country to live?

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“The schools are extraordinary,” says E.J. Dionne, a Bethesda resident and Washington Post political columnist whose 16-year-old son, James, is a sophomore at Whitman. “At Whitman, it’s not just the teachers, though they’re great; it’s not just the breadth of the curriculum, though that’s great, too. It’s the breadth of the sports and the activities and a really good community of parents.”

But county schools would not be among the best in the nation if the county’s well-educated taxpayers weren’t willing to pay for high-quality instruction and competitive teacher salaries, says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington and former superintendent of Fairfax County schools.

“We have very capable, talented people that other areas may not have,” says Domenech, comparing the Montgomery and Fairfax school systems to others around the country.

The Bethesda area is also home to dozens of top-notch private schools, such as Georgetown Preparatory School, Landon School, The Holton-Arms School and Sidwell Friends School, whose lower school In Bethesda is attended by President Barack Obama’s youngest daughter, Sasha.

Because these private schools are located in a county with top public schools, they are more challenged than those in other communities to provide an education worth paying for, Domenech says.

The county also offers Montgomery College, a well-regarded community college that is a popular choice for local high school graduates. According to college officials, 60 percent of county graduates who stay in Maryland for college attend the community College within the following academic year. And enrollment at its Rockville, Germantown And Takoma Park/Silver Spring campuses includes students from each of the county’s 26 high schools.

In 2007, The New York Times named Montgomery College as one of the top 11 community colleges for preparing students to transfer to four-year colleges and universities.

The brain trust

Although Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have yet to list the Bethesda area among their many places of residence, this community has a star power all its own, attracting movers and shakers in government, politics, business and the arts. It’s not unusual to bump into a prominent journalist like Friedman, the New York Times columnist, or McDermott, a National Book Award winner, while on a coffee run.

“It’s hard to find a place in the country where there are so many smart people,” says Marcie Sandalow, who lives with her journalist husband, Marc, and two young sons in East Bethesda. “In our neighborhood, we have journalists, doctors—an amazing assortment of brainiacs.”

Highly educated people are more likely to be employed—often holding top jobs—and to earn more than those without college degrees. That helps to keep unemployment low, boost property values and attract restaurants and other desirable businesses that cater to people with disposable income.

Because they’re highly educated, residents are interested in the arts and politics, creating a community where book signings, lectures and meetings on hot community issues are as well attended as the opening of a blockbuster summer movie.

Bethesda native Jeffrey Slavin, the mayor of the town of Somerset in Chevy Chase, says he’s impressed by “the incredible international diversity” of the area, a trait that can be traced to the presence of World Bank employees, ambassadors and their families and others. Also, he notes, people who come from all over the country to work here contribute the “best practices” of their work and community lives. Slavin recalled the recent efforts of Friendship Heights residents to keep their neighborhood from being developed into “a mini Manhattan.”

“There was so much brainpower and so many people with expertise in these areas in the civic movement,” he says.

Education is clearly essential to Bethesda-area residents. In 2008, for the second year in a row, Forbes.com ranked the metropolitan area encompassing Bethesda to Frederick as the second smartest in the nation. The Web site’s rankings were based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Bert Sperling’s Best Places, a firm that analyzes data about people and places. This year, Forbes.com named Bethesda the most educated small town in the country; Potomac was No. 7.

According to Forbes, of the estimated 1.2 million people in the designated Bethesda-Frederick metropolitan area, almost 90 percent of those ages 25 and older graduated from high school, and almost 50 percent earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Bethesda residents rank even higher. Nearly 98 percent of those ages 25 and older graduated from high school, and almost 81 percent hold a bachelor’s degree. Of those residents, 51.5 percent hold graduate or professional degrees.

In Potomac, about 97 percent of people ages 25 and older are high school graduates, and almost 77 percent hold a bachelor’s degree. Of those college graduates, about 47 percent earned advanced or professional degrees, according to Census data.

Most area residents work in management and professional fields, or for the local, state or federal government, according to Census data.

John Harwood, a New York Times political writer and chief Washington correspondent for CNBC, says his work is more enjoyable because he lives among the people he covers, and among community members who are interested in what he writes.

“You get a lot of feedback. When I go jogging in the morning, I run into people I deal with at work, and other people in politics and government,” says Harwood, who lives in Silver Spring. “The community where we live is so interested and in tune to the kind of stuff I cover in my work life that I have a reinforcement of the subjects I deal with.”

We’re in the money

Living in a historically recession-proof region has helped Bethesda-area residents become some of the highest earners in the country, with many household incomes more than double those of most American families.

According to a 2005-2007 U.S. Census Bureau survey, the median household income in Bethesda was $117,723. It was $154,370 in Potomac, and $86,085 in Rockville. Nationwide, the median household income was about $50,000.

Potomac ranked No. 7 in the biggest earners category of Money Magazine’s 2008 list of America’s best small cities; Bethesda was No. 11. In 2008, Forbes.com ranked Montgomery County as the eighth-richest in the country.

While the Bethesda area hasn’t been as hard hit as other parts of the country by this recession, real estate and construction-related businesses have suffered because of the nationwide housing slump, inflating the county unemployment rate to 5.1 percent, says Steve Silverman, director of the county’s economic development department.