Category Archives: Economy

MoCo Had Nineteen New Business Filings in 2016

By Adam Pagnucco.

Your author has been a corporate and economic researcher for almost twenty-five years.  During that time, we have encountered MANY crazy statistics.  Most of them can be thrown out in ten seconds or less as obviously flawed, generated by suspect sources or both.  But once in a while, even a crazy statistic can have merit because it comes from an unimpeachable source.  This is one of those times.

According to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT), there were nineteen new business filings in MoCo in Fiscal Year 2016.  Not nineteen thousand or nineteen hundred.  Nineteen.

This stat came to light in connection with HB380, a bill introduced by Delegate Mark Fisher (R-Calvert) that would exempt new businesses from paying personal property taxes.  In writing the fiscal note for the bill, the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services (DLS) had to estimate how many new businesses are started around the state and the volume of personal property taxes they pay.  So DLS went to SDAT, which processes business filings as part of its duties.  All corporations and partnerships must register with SDAT to operate legally in the state.  SDAT reported to DLS that the state had 332 new business filings in FY16, of which nineteen were in MoCo.

SDAT’s tabulation of new business filings by county in FY16.

Could this be a fluke?  That’s a natural question to ask of any seemingly crazy stat.  Fisher introduced a similar bill two years ago (HB572) for which a fiscal note was drafted using FY15 data.  In that year, the state had 536 new business filings, of which fifty-seven were in MoCo.

SDAT’s tabulation of new business filings by county in FY15.

Let’s note that this data does not directly address jobs, the huge majority of which are created by existing businesses that expand operations.  But MoCo has been a weak job generator over the last fifteen years and in order to have existing businesses, new ones must be constantly created.  An anemic pace of business formation may eventually impact job creation.

According to the Census Bureau’s 2012 Survey of Business Owners (available through American Fact Finder), there were 118,965 firms in Montgomery County, 21,396 of which had paid employees.  Given those numbers, one might expect hundreds of firms to start up and a similar number to go dark every year due to the churn of capitalism.  But nineteen new companies in one year?  Bethesda Magazine printed a list of sixteen Bethesda-area restaurants that closed in 2016.  If only a handful of more businesses closed in the entire county, MoCo would have had net negative business formation that year.

Additionally, MoCo’s performance relative to the rest of the state was sub-par.  According to the Census Bureau, the State of Maryland had 531,953 firms in 2012, of which 101,876 had paid employees.  So MoCo had 22% of all firms in the state and 21% of the firms with paid employees.  However, MoCo had just 6% of the state’s new business filings in 2016 and 11% of new filings in 2015.  We would love to acquire historical data to see if this is a trend.

This data joins soft recent growth in employment and income as well as the $120 million budget shortfall, half of which was due to factors other than tax planning by the wealthy, as evidence that our economy is not as strong as we would like it to be to pay our county’s bills.  And because the new business filings were weak in many other local jurisdictions besides MoCo, economic growth must draw attention across the state as well.

Which candidates for office do you think can help turn this around?


MoCo After Discovery

By Adam Pagnucco.

Word of Discovery Communications’ exit from Silver Spring has exploded like a bomb in local politics, prompting attacks by the state Democrats on Governor Larry Hogan and two outsider County Executive candidates on the county government.  But the answer to the real question is not to be found in political soundbites: where does MoCo go from here?

Let’s start by acknowledging the unusual nature of Discovery.  The only reason the company was in MoCo to begin with is that its founder, John Hendricks, moved here in his 20s and started it at age 30.  If Hendricks had instead lived in, say, Philadelphia, the company would have been started there.  Discovery was largely a stand-alone organization that was not surrounded by peers.  When Hendricks retired as Chairman three years ago, it was probably inevitable that the company was going to move with media-packed New York City as a prime option.  Accordingly, no one your author knows who has been associated with Discovery is surprised at its exit.  While the company was important to Silver Spring, the departure of a firm like United Therapeutics, a key player in the local bio-tech industry, would have been more troublesome because of the county’s long-time efforts to build up that sector.

That said, Discovery will leave a big hole in Downtown Silver Spring.  Its 1,300 employees are hugely important to Silver Spring’s lunch scene and happy hour crowds.  (Anyone who sees the sheer number of people walking through the Georgia Avenue crosswalk near the building to access Ellsworth Place can appreciate this.)  The building itself was constructed to house one tenant.  Subdividing it for multiple tenants could be costly and challenging, thereby complicating its reuse.  Discovery is looking to sell it but it may not be occupied for a while.  Finally, the viability of Silver Spring as an employment center may be questioned by developers and tenants alike.  Will the central business district continue to be a jobs base or will new development be overwhelmingly residential, thereby cementing Silver Spring as a bedroom community for D.C.?  And could that worry be applied to most of the rest of the county?  It’s telling that the two most prominent new office buildings in the pipeline, the Park and Planning headquarters in Wheaton and the new Marriott headquarters in Downtown Bethesda, are supported by public money.

Aside from the usual political elbow-throwing, the reaction of the county has focused on the financial incentive it offered to Discovery to stay.  County Executive Ike Leggett said in a statement, “The County and State made a substantial proposal designed to accommodate Discovery’s challenges. Together, we were ready to provide considerable incentives to retain their presence in the County.”  Bethesda Magazine quoted Leggett as saying, “The incentive package was one of the largest offered to a company during his time in office, although he did not reveal specific details about the package Tuesday.”  We hear it was in the same ballpark as the $22 million offered by the county to retain Marriott with more money coming from the state.  Notably, New York State offered no incentives to attract Discovery.

The county’s reliance on corporate welfare for economic development is one of the great untold local stories of the last few years.  Business incentives, usually contained in grants convertible to loans when job targets go unmet, are disbursed through the county’s Economic Development Fund (EDF).  They are approved in secret under an exemption from the state’s Open Meetings Act.  Residents do not learn of the amounts spent or the recipients’ identities until after the agreements are signed.  Summary details are available only in annual EDF reports released during the County Council’s budget process.  Aggregations of those reports show that the county has approved 49 incentives totaling $88.3 million between 2012 and February 2017, of which 35 incentives worth $79.7 million were used for retention.  That’s right, folks – over the last five years, the county agreed to pay almost $80 million to existing employers to stay.  Six of those incentives consist of annual disbursements payable over periods ranging from six to fifteen years, thereby continually weighing on the tax base.  For the sake of comparison, the county is spending $80 million for libraries and recreation combined this fiscal year.  Just this month, the County Executive has proposed a mid-year savings plan of $60 million, including a $25 million cut for MCPS, while corporate welfare remains untouched.

Since 2012, MoCo’s corporate welfare has skyrocketed.

Is this really working?

MoCo should be an economic development leader.  We have tremendous advantages, including a large federal presence, a highly educated workforce, good schools, lots of investment in transportation projects (including the Purple Line), substantial wealth in some of our neighborhoods, low crime and virtually no public corruption.  Few localities in the nation can say they have all of these things.  But instead of being a growth leader in the Washington area, the county’s total employment growth of 3% between 2001 and 2016 ranked 20th of 24 Washington-area jurisdictions measured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  MoCo’s jobs base and its real per capita personal income have not recovered from the Great Recession.  And now our economic problems have contributed to a $120 million budget shortfall.  We’re not leaders, we’re laggards.  We must do better.

Discovery is headed out the door, but if we want to create the next generation of Discoveries, we are going to need a more creative and disciplined economic development strategy than relying on bribes to retain big employers.  We are going to have to save tax hikes for desperate times and not pass them simply because we’d like to spend money.  We are going to have to invest more in transportation and education and pay for it by restraining growth in the rest of the budget.  We are going to have to do things like ending the liquor monopoly, directing more of our county reserves into community banks where they can finance local job creation, cutting impact taxes near Metro stations to encourage transit-oriented development and raising them elsewhere to pay for it, and getting rid of redundant bureaucracy.  (Fun fact: we are the only local jurisdiction that requires two different independent agencies to sign off on every record plat, which drives developers banana-cakes.)  And after passing numerous employment laws, we should give employers time to adapt to them rather than immediately introduce more mandates.  If we implement this kind of agenda, maybe we could attract and retain businesses without handing out tens of millions of dollars in corporate welfare.

Economic development is tough.  It’s about more than one big employer.  It takes time.  It takes multiple components.  Most of all, it takes discipline.  If our next generation of elected leaders learns these lessons from Discovery’s departure, we will come back stronger than ever.  If not, Discovery won’t be the last high-profile employer to say adiós.


Is MoCo’s Budget in Trouble?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County’s $120 million budget shortfall has set off political fireworks this election season, including attacks from Delegate Bill Frick (D-16), who is running for Executive, and Republicans who question how taxes could be going up while revenues are going down.  County Council incumbents pooh-pooh it, insisting that the budget decline is unremarkable and the economy is strong.  County Executive spokesman Patrick Lacefield, who once predicted that any loss of the county’s $30 million in liquor profits would cause a big property tax hike, now says that the $120 million shortfall is “pretty small” at just 2.2 percent of the county’s budget.

What is going on here?  Is MoCo’s budget in trouble?

First, the incumbents are right to point out that mid-year corrections, including budget savings plans, are not uncommon.  Between FY08 and FY11, the County Council approved five mid-year cut packages ranging from $30 million to $70 million each due to the Great Recession.  In FY16, the council approved a $54 million savings plan associated with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wynne decision and disappointing income tax receipts in the prior year.  While mid-year cuts happen occasionally, it’s important to note that their history indicates that they are often – but not always – produced by looming economic problems.

So what’s causing this one?  No one is totally sure yet, but there seems to be two phenomena at work.

Declining Income Tax Payments from the Wealthy

In Maryland, the state collects income taxes on behalf of local governments and remits them in periodic distributions.  Part of MoCo’s problem originated in its November income tax distribution from the state, which includes extension filers who tend to be disproportionately very wealthy.  It’s difficult to forecast income tax payments from wealthy people because their dependence on capital gains and business income can be volatile.  The chart below from the state’s Bureau of Revenue Estimates contrasts the annual change in average federal adjusted gross income between all MoCo taxpayers (pink bars) and the top 100 MoCo taxpayers (blue line).  Income change for all taxpayers usually varies by single digits each year while income for the super-wealthy almost always varies by double digits.  This creates serious forecasting challenges for the county government since the super-wealthy have a material impact on its budget.

One relevant fact is that the November distribution may be down by 29% in MoCo but, according to the state, it is also down by 30% in Howard County and 26% in Baltimore County.  One thing these three jurisdictions have in common is that they all have substantial concentrations of very wealthy people.  That suggests that some of MoCo’s problem is not specific to the county but rather to variations in the incomes of the super rich.

Why is this happening?  One explanation lies in capital gains income.  Council analyst Jacob Sesker writes:

To a large degree, that volatility is the result of the year-to-year variations in the capital gains income of a small number of County residents. Illustrating this point, part of the projected FY18 decline in income tax revenue can be traced to a sharp drop in the capital gains of the County’s top 50 taxpayers, who realized gains in tax year 2016 that were 50% of the gains realized in tax year 2015, resulting in $21 million less in County income tax revenue (Revenue Administration Division of the Maryland Comptroller). Staff’s review of tax return data published by the Comptroller indicates that roughly 1.8% of Montgomery County returns report income of $500,000 or greater. On average, these returns explain more than half of any year-to-year increases in income tax revenue, and explain more than 100% of any year-to-year declines in income tax revenue.

Another factor could be the tax bills being considered by Congress, which contain numerous large cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations.  The super wealthy could be deferring capital gains and business pass-through income to next year when they would be subject to significantly lower rates.  If true, that would mean less income tax revenue this year but perhaps more next year when the deferred income is reported.  That’s just a theory but it can’t be ruled out.

Broader Economic Weakness

There are other facts that can’t be explained by the tax planning of the super wealthy.  First, FY17 (the year of the 9% property tax hike) closed out with $25 million less than expected.  Second, the county is writing down $206 million over the next six years in property taxes, energy taxes, transfer taxes, recordation taxes, telephone taxes and hotel taxes in addition to a $212 million income tax writedown.  The energy tax revision alone is $100 million over six years.  The reason for that is unclear, but it’s worth remembering that since commercial energy users pay roughly double the tax rates of residential users, some assumptions regarding employer energy use may be operative here.  It seems unlikely that a “strong economy” would produce such broad, multi-tax writedowns of the kind just put forth by the county.

What’s the bottom line?  Over the years, we have learned that under most circumstances, economic trends usually matter more than singular events.  One good year should not cause irrational exuberance and one bad tax distribution should not cause panic.  Whether the recent shortfall turns out to be meaningful or not, MoCo’s serious budgetary challenges are long term in nature.  They relate to decade-plus trends of lagging growth in employment and income, repeated funding of ongoing spending with one-time revenue sources and the county’s recent passage of large tax hikes and expensive employment laws at the same time, a unique combination among Washington-area jurisdictions.  That is on top of any targeting of Maryland and general economic insanity by Congress.  The big question is not about one tax distribution from the state but whether a combination of all these long-term factors will catch up with MoCo in a really bad way in the next couple years.

That’s a question for the next Executive and County Council.


Roger Berliner on Jobs

Job growth has been stagnant in Montgomery County over the past few years. What would you do to encourage increased job growth?

Increasing prosperity — and having that prosperity shared more broadly — is the central platform of my campaign.  As in most things, achieving this will be a multi-prong effort:

1.  In our county, small business is big business. And for far, far too long, businesses in Montgomery County have seen our county as a foe, not a friend.  We need to be a partner to business, not an obstacle.  That is what prompted me to be the lead sponsor on legislation that created both the Small Business Navigator and the Business Solutions Group in county government — to put in county government resources that are intended to make life easier for our small business community. When we adopt new programs and regulations in our county, we need to make sure we are doing so in a manner that will not harm small businesses.  That is how I have done my work on the Council and it is how I will do my work as County Executive if I have the privilege of leading our great county.

2.  We need to attract businesses to Montgomery County. We have extraordinary assets. Amazon’s request for proposals for its new H2Q brought that home:  Montgomery put checks in all the important boxes.  Smart, skilled work force — check. Transit — check.  Vibrant urban amenities – check.  Awesome quality of life — check.  Diverse population- check.  Good government-check.  Strong, national business leaders-check.  We need to do a better job of promoting our county.  As County Executive, I will be a passionate, ceaseless champion of our county.

3.  What are the fundamentals that create economic growth and opportunities? A skilled workforce, which is why I have been the leading champion of workforce development; world class transit, which is why I have championed fixing Metro, building the Purple Line & Bus Rapid Transit and supporting Ride On Extra; affordable housing, which is why I sponsored legislation that requires our county to consider co-locating affordable housing on county property and increases the obligation of developers to provide affordable housing; creating vibrant urban nodes, with world class architecture, that attracts millennials and businesses like Marriott and Fox 5 to Bethesda; embracing innovation, which is why I led the way to create the Office of Innovation in our county government — we either lean forward or fall back.

4.  Build a “green economy”. Under my leadership, our county has become one of the most sustainable communities in our country.  Those efforts have not only led to our county government being “carbon neutral”, but to creating good green jobs.  Solar companies are thriving; energy efficiency firms are flourishing; composting and organic farming is growing; and our commitment to storm water management should increase jobs and job training opportunities.  A green economy is a healthy economy.

5.  Support our immigrant entrepreneurs. Immigrant-owned businesses are the fastest-growing segment of the county’s economy. Often, these businesses need only a little help to get started. That is what motivated me to lead the effort to create our county’s first micro-loan program, modeled after successful programs around the world.

6.  Pay people a decent wage, which is why I support increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour consistent with the County Executive’s proposal.

My record on creating a more favorable economic climate in our county has led four Montgomery County Business Hall of Famers, past presidents of local chambers of commerce, entrepreneurs of the year, minority business leaders and green business leaders to endorse me.


George Leventhal on Jobs

Job growth has been stagnant in Montgomery County over the past few years. What would you do to encourage increased job growth?

We have seen good news on job growth recently. County Executive Leggett’s office reported in January that the county had added 7,163 jobs since the previous January and in May that resident employment had increased by 10,900 jobs (not all located in the county) since the previous May. High-profile business location decisions recently have included Marriott’s decision to keep its headquarters in the county, Discovery’s decision to keep 230 jobs in Silver Spring rather than relocate them to Virginia, and WTTG/Fox 5’s decision to relocate to Bethesda from Northwest Washington.

Montgomery County has a great story to tell, but we need to do a better job telling it. Our quality of life is high; we have great public schools; honest and effective government; excellent cultural and recreational opportunities; beautiful natural features; proximity to airports, shipping routes, interstate highways and public transportation; high family incomes; a low crime rate, and a low unemployment rate. I supported creating the new Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation and am glad to see it is investing more than ever before in marketing our county’s excellent attributes to grow our job base and retain existing employers.

We have one of the smartest, most diverse work forces in the United States. We should advertise ourselves as the International Gateway to the Nation’s Capital, to attract employers from around the world and entice the talent our employers need to compete in the global marketplace. While our workforce already possesses more graduate degrees than any other community, and a wider array of language skills than most, we must make language education a higher priority in our schools. Language immersion should be expanded, especially in languages critical for global trade and national security, like Mandarin, Spanish, French, German, Hindi/Urdu, Arabic, Russian, Farsi, and Portuguese.

To appeal to the millennial generation of workers, and the generations that will follow them, we must continue our placemaking efforts, to build great urban communities in locations well served by transit, including Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville, Wheaton, and Glenmont, and we must expand transit options to economic opportunity hubs like Gaithersburg, Germantown and White Oak.

We should increase vocational training in our schools. The courses available at Edison High School are insufficient. Not all students will, or need to, attend college. Many good-paying jobs in industrial, manufacturing, information technology and other sectors can be filled by high school graduates with additional technical and vocational training.

We need to continue focused efforts to streamline our planning, permitting and procurement processes to see where they can be made more efficient and business-friendly. We must also strengthen our efforts to keep Montgomery County tax dollars in our local economy, by strengthening programs like the Local Small Business Reserve (which I originated), and minority, female and disabled business purchasing preferences.

I support designating Enterprise Zones to attract investment to areas that are struggling, like Glenmont and Burtonsville. I have also supported tax credits for investors in life science, environmental technology and cybersecurity, and I am currently exploring a county add-on to federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards. I will seek to reduce our county energy tax, which puts our high-tech and data-intensive businesses at a particular disadvantage.


Marc Elrich on Jobs

Job growth has been stagnant in Montgomery County over the past few years. What would you do to encourage increased job growth?

Most job growth comes from new businesses expanding in the location in which they were founded.  Surveys indicate that the quality of life and the quality of public goods in an area – including transportation systems and schools – matter far more when businesses are making their initial location decisions than the taxes and other financial incentives they might be offered.

While there is a lot about the economy that is beyond our control – there’s no silver bullet for job growth – there is much that the county can do to create the conditions for businesses to start and thrive.  To the extent that we have cumbersome and inappropriate regulations, we need to change them, and to the extent that regulatory costs are excessive, we need to lower them.  More importantly, I would focus on incubating new local-grown businesses, nurturing their growth, and improving the county’s economic infrastructure.  Other jurisdictions have creative small business incubators and we can learn from their successes to grow a stronger local economy.  The empty spaces in shopping centers and office buildings were once filled with small businesses, and we need to nourish a new generation of entrepreneurs to refill them.

The bus rapid transit (BRT) system proposal that I initiated and have been advocating for during my time on the County Council also holds real potential as a tool for job growth.  Businesses have made an issue of the lack of transit as an impediment to growth.  If we want people to create startups or expand existing businesses, we need entrepreneurs to feel confident that their employees have a reliable way of getting to and from work, that their customers can get to their stores, and that they will be able to transport the goods and services they need to stay in business.

A well-implemented BRT system would reduce future congestion and move more people than roadways alone, making the county a more attractive location for businesses of all sizes.  It would greatly benefit residents as well.

We also need to work with the school system, including Montgomery College, to make sure our students are prepared for jobs that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree but do require post-high-school education.  And we should expand apprenticeship programs in cooperation with the building trades organizations that need the next generation of skilled workers.


Bill Frick on Jobs

Job growth has been stagnant in Montgomery County over the past few years. What would you do to encourage increased job growth?

For far too long, our Council has been complacent with the status quo and at times even outright hostile to the private sector.  Resting on the expectation of stable employment from the federal government, the Council has been largely indifferent and even averse to growing the private sector economy.  We can no longer afford to talk about the need for job and wage growth and yet show no interest in facilitating business growth that creates those jobs.  As Norm Augustine likes to say, “you can’t be for jobs and against employers.”

From our notorious permitting process to our burdensome tax policies, we need to stop treating small business as the enemy.  Small businesses are the vital engine that will drive our middle class growth.  We need to reorient our administration to recognize that being punitive to businesses isn’t actually in our interests.

We must also foster and facilitate growth and entrepreneurship.  We benefit from an amazingly well-educated and creative workforce. But our women and men often find DC or Virginia or Baltimore to be more promising environments in which to grow and create businesses.  I want to enhance access to capital by building on our programs to keep local and state dollars in the community banks that are most likely to lend to small businesses, like I did at the state level. And I will help jump-start our hospitality, service, and restaurant economy by reforming or eliminating the Department of Liquor Control, a broken system that has functioned as a repellent to restaurants and consumers alike. I led this fight in the legislature, and will win this fight as County Executive.


Lessons Learned from the Giant Tax Hike, Part Three

By Adam Pagnucco.

If the next County Executive and County Council want to prevent another Giant Tax Hike, they will have to do something that has not been done for years: seriously improve the county’s economy.  Otherwise, no budget reforms will be enough to pay for the county’s needs.

There are many ways to assess a local economy, but for the purposes of this column, let’s look at two big measures: jobs and income.  From 2001 through 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates that total employment in the Washington metro area grew by 393,048 jobs, a growth rate of 14.6%.  In Montgomery County, total employment grew by 14,086, a growth rate of 3.1%.  Of 24 local jurisdictions measured by BLS, Montgomery’s job performance ranked 20th.  Among the large jurisdictions, only Prince George’s County fared worse.

Montgomery fared well in federal employment over this period, growing its federal jobs base by 18.9%.  That beat the metro area’s federal employment growth rate of 13.2%.  The county’s employment problems are concentrated in its private sector, which grew by just 1.0% between 2001 and 2016.  Montgomery’s private sector had 374,115 jobs in 2016, below its peak of 386,626 ten years before.  Over the last fifteen years, Montgomery’s private sector employment growth ranked 19th of 24 local jurisdictions.

In terms of real per capita personal income, the Washington region enjoyed a long period of growth that peaked in 2007, the year before the Great Recession hit.  In the eight years since, the region’s per capita income has struggled to increase for the first time in more than three decades.  Montgomery has a higher per capita income than the regional average, but it has suffered from a similar pattern.

Of 19 local jurisdictions tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), twelve had real per capita personal income gains between 2007 and 2015.  Montgomery was one of the seven jurisdictions that did not.  Its 1.7% drop is below the regional total of -0.2% and ranks 14th of 19 jurisdictions in the region.

In broad terms, the employment data and the income data agree: Montgomery County has still not recovered from the Great Recession.

The fragile state of the economy acts like a steel cage on the county’s budget.  The county’s needs in public schools, public safety, transportation, health and human services and countless other areas will not go away.  But unlike days past, the economy currently cannot generate the tax revenues to finance everything desired by those in office – and their constituents.  The county has passed four tax hikes since the Great Recession started – two property tax increases (FY09 and FY16), an energy tax hike (FY11) and a recordation tax hike (FY16).  Added to this is a series of recent laws imposing rising costs on employers.  While some local jurisdictions in the region (especially in Virginia) have passed tax hikes and the District of Columbia and Prince George’s have passed new employment laws, Montgomery County is the only local government that has passed both in significant magnitude.  There may be reason for that, but it has contributed to enormous competitive challenges for the county.

Progressive policies such as those favored by Montgomery County politicians cost lots of money.  That money can only be obtained over the long term through a robust economy.  Economic growth is affected by the totality of what the county does – its investments in education and transportation, its fiscal and taxation policies, its planning decisions and the nature of new laws and regulations it imposes on employers.  If any of these things negatively impacts economic growth, marketing programs, slogans and massive incentives for large businesses will not by themselves make up for it.

The Number One lesson from the Giant Tax Hike is that the next generation of county elected officials must prioritize job creation and income growth.  Failure to do so will result in more tax hikes and further long-term decline.


Growing Our Local Economy and Shrinking Our Wealth Gap

By Ben Shnider.

To drive along Montgomery County’s I-270 corridor is to pass countless “For Lease” signs in front of near-vacant office parks. And to speak with service industry workers along this corridor is to encounter our community’s widening gap between the top 1% and other 99% — for whom it’s becoming harder and harder to afford living in the County.

How we address these twin challenges of affordability and economic development will define our community over the next decade. Thankfully, by proactively seizing every opportunity to prioritize smart growth, we can make significant progress on both fronts.

Consider the recent foreclosure sale of Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg. The mall was purchased for one-fifth of what the previous owner spent to acquire it in 2012. This drop in value coincided with, among other factors, the growth of the more walkable Crown Farm neighborhood about four miles down the road. The County is already studying a modernization of the well-used Ride-On transit center adjacent to Lakeforest Mall. A comprehensive mixed-use redevelopment of the property would complement this investment far better than retaining the dated mall by boosting foot traffic and economic activity. After all, the numbers are clear: walkable, transit-oriented areas in our region produce 80% more in retail sales than their auto-centric counterparts. And it’s these more walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods that have recently drawn many regional employers.

Mixed-use redevelopment of properties like Lakeforest can also be an important tool in addressing the affordable housing crisis in Montgomery County. Over one-third of County residents now rent and half of those renters are cost-burdened. Those looking to buy are often forced to choose between inadequate options that squeeze prospective buyers for unnecessary space and/or acreage. Walkable and transit accessible communities provide an opportunity for a broader range of housing choices. They also provide additional opportunities for existing affordability initiatives like the County’s Moderately Priced-Dwelling Units (MPDU) — a program that Gaithersburg and Rockville have also adopted.

Of course, there are challenges involved when re-envisioning underutilized properties like Lakeforest, including adequate public infrastructure, individual property owners in need of an incentive to relocate, and developers who don’t want to contribute their fair share for infrastructure improvements. In this case, the City of Gaithersburg — a leader in smart growth — has wrestled with these hurdles for some time. And, of course, not every mall in the region is failing. For instance, Westfield’s Bethesda and Wheaton malls are doing relatively well.

But these challenges can’t be an excuse for running on autopilot and the fact that some indoor shopping malls are doing better than others shouldn’t distract us from the overall trend. Instead, we must embrace opportunities to reinvent dated properties in the County with a sense of urgency. Otherwise our economy will fall behind those of neighboring jurisdictions, our residents will lack adequate housing and employment opportunities, and our government will lack the tax revenue necessary for critical investments like pre-K and enhanced access to Montgomery College.

The County, therefore, must work with our municipalities and the business community to leverage every tool at its disposal to move away from shopping malls and cavernous office parks and toward more sustainable and affordable communities — from master plans and zoning text amendments (outside of cities, like Gaithersburg and Rockville, that have their own zoning ordinances), to reinvigorated and innovative economic development and affordable housing policies.

This overall approach will help uproot the “For Lease” signs along I-270 while extending more economic opportunities to the low-wage workers working in their shadows.

Ben Shnider is a Democrat who is running for Montgomery County Council in District 3.


Has Montgomery County Lost Its Economic Strength?

By Dr. Tom Ferleman.

[Editor’s note: Seventh State is pleased to present guest blogs from candidates for office.  The views here are those of the candidate and not of David Lublin or Adam Pagnucco.]

When I was growing up, Montgomery County was one of the wealthiest counties in the whole country.  Many of us remember when Montgomery County’s transportation infrastructure was second to none. Our schools were always ranked number one. We were the envy of the nation. Today, we’re thrilled when we’re in the top ten on any list.

Even Councilmember Craig Rice admitted that the Council no longer holds the County in such high regard.

In March of 2015, it was reported that while stumping in Germantown for more funds for the education budget, Rice told an audience, “We did not want to acknowledge, for a very long time, the fact that we had poor people coming into Montgomery County and that Montgomery County was changing.”

As was reported by the Germantown Pulse on March 19, 2015: [Rice] contends that County leaders waited a long time before we changed the perception of Montgomery County as a being full of millionaires who could afford whatever they wanted. “That was never a reality. We just never acknowledged it.”

It’s as if the County Council doesn’t understand how government works. Montgomery County lags the region in recovering pre-recession job levels. Despite six consecutive years of positive job growth across the region, Montgomery County had 0.6 percent (2,964) fewer jobs in March 2016 compared to the same month in 2006, indicating that job losses sustained during the Great Recession have not been fully recovered. In contrast, the wider Washington, DC metro area added 191,718 new jobs over the decade. Three jurisdictions together accounted for 70 percent of the region’s job expansion: The District of Columbia (82,397), Loudoun County (32,081) and Fairfax County (19,550).

While average may be good enough for some Councilmembers, for me, it’s not a passing grade. We must take active measures to boost our competitive advantage in the region.

If elected to the County Council, I will work to develop the mechanisms to make it easier for businesses to operate in the County (i.e. lower taxes, easier permitting and licensing, less traffic congestion, and a favorable education pipeline). While growing jobs locally contributes to providing a better quality of life, it also creates an entrepreneurial culture that promotes economic development for everyone.

Dr. Tom Ferleman is a Republican candidate for Montgomery County Council in District 2.