By Adam Pagnucco.
The Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC) is the county’s economic development authority. It is a 501(c)(3) whose board members are nominated by the county executive and confirmed by the county council. Its operating budget comes mainly from county government. In June, MCEDC launched a business assistance initiative called 3R (Reopen Relaunch and Reimagine), which is funded by a combination of public and private money. One component of 3R is a new grant program for restaurants and retailers to prepare for the winter months. All companies in those sectors are encouraged to apply, but there’s a catch:
Getting the money depends in part on where in the county they are located.
The press release announcing the new program says:
As part of the public-private 3R (Reopen, Relaunch and Reimagine) Initiative, the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC) is now accepting grant applications from local restaurants and retailers for up to $5,000 to prepare for the upcoming holiday season and winter months. Eligible businesses can submit applications through November 5.
More information on the 3R Initiative Restaurant & Retail grant program and the application can be found here. The grant is an important component of MCEDC’s comprehensive year-long 3R Initiative designed to address the devastating impacts of the pandemic on the Montgomery County restaurant and retail industries.
Although any locally-owned restauranteur or retailer with fewer than 100 employees can apply for the grant, ten Montgomery County target corridors will be given priority for funding: Burtonsville/Briggs Chaney, Wheaton/Glenmont, White Oak, Aspen Hill, Germantown, Damascus, Takoma-Langley, Four Corners, Montgomery Hills, and Twinbrook/White Flint. These ten target corridors were selected with community input.
I asked MCEDC CEO Ben Wu to explain the organization’s rationale for geographic prioritization. He wrote the following to me:
Hi Adam, thanks for your message and your interest in the 3R Initiative.
As you know, the 3R Initiative supports our Montgomery County restaurant and retail sectors during this pandemic crisis. This $1 Million public-private partnership is designed as a year-long initiative, of which the grants are an important element, especially now with the start of the winter and holiday seasons. Future elements include a retail recovery guide, a countywide e-commerce marketplace and additional targeted investments in selected commercial corridors.
While the 3R Initiative has county-wide components such as the recovery guide and the e-commerce marketplace, it is also an economic development pilot project that seeks to bring together community stakeholders in hard-hit target corridors that might not have significant resources to search for collective solutions. These community stakeholders could include landlords, tenants, chambers of commerce, neighborhood associations, local support organizations, and the County Regional Service Centers. The 3R Initiative will work with the target corridors to help their restaurants and retail establishments develop strategies and access funding (through the 3R and/or Reopen Montgomery grants). At the program’s conclusion, depending on the pandemic, we would discuss the future of bringing the successes of this community-based model in the target corridors to potentially be recreated in other areas of the county.
Although any locally-owned restauranteur or retailer with fewer than 100 employees can apply for the grant, ten Montgomery County target corridors will be given priority for funding. These ten target corridors were selected with recommendations and input from the five County Regional Service Centers and the community. They were selected to be geographically and demographically diverse. Each of the Regional Service Center jurisdictions have at least one target corridor, many with more than one.
If you should have any further questions, let me know.
Now let’s stipulate a few things up front. First, MoCo is an incredibly diverse jurisdiction in all kinds of ways. One can make a case that non-identical communities should not be treated identically. Second, MoCo holds events in locations all over the county that are not the same in kind or timing. There are county seminars, recreation programs, park programs, community events and all sorts of things that rotate across geography. Third, the county has different tax, fee and regulatory requirements depending on area, including parking fees, impact taxes, enterprise zones and of course master plans. We are too large and diverse to enact perfectly homogenous standards for everything the county does.
But in the case of COVID impact, businesses all over the county are suffering. Downtown Silver Spring lost Not Your Average Joe’s, Sergio’s and Eggspectation. Downtown Bethesda lost Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle, George’s Chophouse and Le Vieux Logis. Gaithersburg lost Red Hot & Blue and Union Jack’s. Rockville lost Bagel City, Gumbo Ya Ya, La Tasca, Gordon Biersch and Urban Bar-B-Que. And yet most of these areas are not prioritized under MCEDC’s grant program. Small businesses in these areas may have to wait behind applicants from other areas and might not get grant money at all.
I don’t think MCEDC intends this, but their decision to steer money to some areas and away from others feeds one of the more toxic trends in MoCo politics: the suspicion that some parts of the county are treated better than others. There are tensions of east vs west (especially in issues connected to the schools). There is upcounty vs downcounty. (Folks ask why the Purple Line is being built but M-83, the upcounty highway, is not.) There is wealth vs less wealth. There are issues of racial equity which play out differently across MoCo. The current movement for nine council districts sprang from these tensions. The biggest single argument made by Nine Districts for MoCo is that the county council’s structure, especially its use of at-large members, steers resources away from some communities and towards others. MCEDC’s program is an unwitting but actual demonstration of this sort of thing.
So now two things will happen. First, conspiracy theorists residing in one of the non-prioritized areas will say, “Aha, we were right! The county really is trying to screw us!” Second, businesses in the largest non-prioritized areas will complain and say, “What about us?” The fact that the county’s largest business districts – Downtown Silver Spring, Downtown Bethesda, Downtown Rockville and Gaithersburg – are non-prioritized means that some serious clout could be brought to bear on this issue.
I think MCEDC is well intentioned. But I also think that this could turn into yet another headache that county leaders don’t need.