Greater Washington: More Than Politics And Government

Monday, March 1, 2004 - 00:00

The Editor interviews William D. Lecos, President and CEO, Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce (FCCC), and Thomas G. Morr, Managing Director, The Greater Washington Initative (GWI).

Editor: Please tell our readers about your organizations.

Lecos:
Like many chambers of commerce, FCCC was founded to represent the bedrock interests of the business community. In 1925, when we were founded, that meant working on behalf of farmers and dairymen, several retailers, attorneys, bankers, real estate agents - and at least four women. At that time, Fairfax County had an agrarian economy and was the leading dairy producer in Virginia. One of the big activities in that era was promoting Sadie, the Virginia champion Holstein. Since that time, Fairfax County has evolved into the economic engine of Greater Washington and the Commonwealth of Virginia. FCCC now serves a diverse array of businesses, from multinational corporations to home-based entrepreneurs, with a workforce of more than 650,000 throughout Fairfax County.

Morr: Comprised of three distinct areas - DC, Northern Virginia and Suburban Maryland - no one government speaks for the entire region. To facilitate collaboration among 25 local development agencies and the private sector in the region, GWI provides marketing services and assists firms in expanding their businesses in the region. All GWI's services are complimentary. The fourth largest metropolitan region in the country, Greater Washington has a population of about 5.7 million people and a gross regional product in excess of $270 billion a year.

Editor: Why is the Greater Washington area an attractive international business location?

Morr:
Many people think of Washington as only politics and government. In reality, Greater Washington is a major center of commerce.

The federal government itself is the world's largest consumer of almost anything you can think of - not only satellites and rocket ships, but also automobiles, tires and even toilet paper. About 41 cents of every dollar that the federal government spends in Greater Washington is for procurement, which totals about $36 billion annually.

The business model of government has shifted from 50 years ago, when 40 percent of the people in Greater Washington worked directly for the U.S. government. Last year, that number was 11 percent. If you look at the demographics of any major city, you would find a similar percentage working for the federal government.

In Greater Washington, almost as many people work for international companies (about 330,000 jobs) as for the federal government (about 340,000 jobs).

Lecos: Many factors come to mind. One obvious factor is that, because of the federal government's regulation of trade, many companies want to have a footprint here. Another is that, with Dulles International Airport, we are now the second largest gateway to any place in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the globe. It's also interesting to note that more than 50 percent of the world's Internet traffic passes through Fairfax County, home of the Internet's origins.

Morr: Greater Washington is a very nice place to live. We have 230,000 acres of parkland starting at the Capitol and radiating out in all directions. We also have 800 miles of bike trails and 2,700 holes of golf.
We have a superb cultural community. Most of our 92, soon to be 93, museums are free because they are part of the Smithsonian Institution. We have 83 theatre companies and a number of performance venues. In fact, a recent study found over 35 new cultural development projects, including new museums, performing centers and other new cultural facilities with a total expenditure projected to be $2.6 billion. This is an enormous investment, which contributes to making Greater Washington a lively and attractive place for its residents and visitors alike.

Lecos: Contributing to the wonderful quality of life are the area's excellent public schools. Last year the US News & World Report listed the top 100 public high schools in America. All 23 of Fairfax County's public high schools were listed.

Virginia has often been acknowledged as having one of the best public college and university systems in the country, all the way through its community college system. Schools like the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Virginia Tech and George Mason are all public, state supported institutions. That's an impressive mix.

The institutions of higher education provide not only academic leadership, but also points of technology transfer, which is the high-end intellectual leadership upon which companies rely, particularly in a technology economy. What jumps out is that Greater Washington is a place where the world's most sophisticated technology gets applied to solve the world's most complex problems.

Editor: How are environmental issues being balanced with business development in Greater Washington?

Morr:
Greater Washington is impacted by the industrial pollutants that migrate East from the Midwest. As a result, we have to worry not only about our own clean air attainment, but also about the impact from neighboring jurisdictions. One example of how we're aggressively addressing environmental issues is our hard work to get automobiles off the road and people into public transit.

Lecos: We are second, right behind New York City, in the percentage of workers who commute using mass transit. We have an excellent transit system, the Washington Metro, which was built less than 25 years ago. It is an extraordinary system with expansion being planned into other parts of the region, including a route to Dulles Airport. We also have several other rail systems and a very significant bus system. Many of its pieces of equipment are outfitted with natural gas.

We're number one in the country in the use of car pools. We have worked hard in mitigating traffic congestion, which is one of the touchiest concerns about growth from the average worker's perspective. We continue to look for ways to improve.

Editor: Please tell us about the quality of the area's workforce.

Morr:
Our workforce is the most highly educated of any major city in the country - 42 percent of our workforce aged 25 and older have a college or advanced degree and 19 percent have an advanced degree. Not only that, we have over 275,000 people whose background includes some sort of engineering, science or technology occupation. This makes a surprisingly innovative community.

With the embassy community here, as well as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, many people from around the globe call the area home. We are a very diverse city. People from all around the world feel very comfortable being here.

We have a significant Afro-American community. In fact, we are the number two city in numbers of Afro-American-owned businesses and number one in terms of the economic impact of those businesses. And, we are third on the Hispanic Magazine list of cities with Hispanic-American owned businesses.
The diverse culture makes Greater Washington a very interesting place for people to be.

Lecos: Greater Washington has one of the most powerful brands in the entire world with some of the most recognizable landmarks. It attracts a very high-end workforce.

Editor: What economic challenges does the region face?

Morr:
The federal government contributes one third of our Gross Regional Product. These expenditures act as a buffer to the highs and lows of economic cycles. When economic times are tough, Greater Washington tends not to suffer as much as other regions. As a result, in 2002 while Silicon Valley lost 160,000 jobs, Greater Washington's economy grew fastest of the nation's top ten cities, adding 10,000 jobs. In 2003, the Washington region again led the nation's cities, adding 36,000 new jobs. Atlanta was not far behind, adding 31,000 jobs. The next closest was Philadelphia, adding 5,000 jobs.

Lecos: The diversity of our regional economy also helped us to weather the burst of the "dot com" bubble. Our strong base of intelligence and information industries spans aerospace, telecommunications, biotechnology, homeland security, nanotechnology and a broad range of other sectors. When there is a hiccup in one sector, the others help to balance the job displacements.

Editor: How are law firms contributing to the healthy business climate in Greater Washington?

Morr:
Because of the amount of policy making that occurs here, top-notch law firms from all over the country have offices here. As well as serving their clients' business interests, these firms and their partners contribute generously of their time and talent to help the local cultural and nonprofit communities. They also are a tremendous help to groups like ours that are charged with growing the region's economy.

Lecos: Law firms have always been strong promoters of our region. Beveridge & Diamond is just one example. A national leader in addressing legal issues related to economic development, I am delighted to have the strengths of Gus Bauman and his partners to draw upon in this marketplace. To their credit, they contribute their intellect not only in the courtroom on behalf of their clients, but also they invest their talents and resources to benefit the public as well.

Many other firms play a leadership role as well. For example, our vice chairman is Dick Duval of Holland & Knight. Craig Chassen from Shaw Pittman chairs the Governor's Contractors Counsel Awards on our behalf. I could run down a list of national law firms, as well as local, who have a tradition of being actively engaged in the business organizations that serve our community, and we're the better for it.

Editor: What is the hottest topic before the area's legislatures?

Lecos:
I'll speak for Virginia. The big challenge, as in so many states, is in tax restructuring. The Commonwealth is increasingly more diverse, more urban and older - with rising medical costs and needs for more public services. Tax restructuring is driving the actions of the General Assembly as we speak. Three distinct plans - one proposed by the Governor, another by the House Finance Committee and another by the Senate Finance Committee - are being debated. Each has distinctive provisions as well as some similarities to the other plans.

Morr: Governments across the country are struggling with what services to trim and what taxes to add to make their budgets balance. A noteworthy exception is DC, which happily has balanced its budget this year. It faces its own unique challenges because so many of the buildings in the District are owned by the federal government, which are off DC's tax rolls.

Editor: Thank you for giving our readers an overview of the business climate in Greater Washington. Where can they find more information?

Lecos:
They can visit our website at www.fccc.org.

Morr: They also can visit our website is www.greaterwashington.org.