With Kirk Heffelmire
One of our primary roles at Mason is to drive the local economy through innovation and entrepreneurship, continually reassess the economic landscape, and identify a prosperous path forward for the region.
In early 2015, with the support of the 2030 Group and other local business and civic leaders, Mason economist Stephen Fuller began to study the pressing need for regional cooperation. He recommended ways to improve regional growth and curb the local economy’s overreliance on federal government spending.
This effort from Fuller, at the time head of Mason’s Center for Regional Analysis, produced the widely cited Roadmap, a project that brought together stakeholders across jurisdictional lines to leverage the current knowledge-rich workforce and fertile environment for growth. They shared concerns about the lingering effects of the Great Recession and the federal budget sequestration that had hindered regional economic growth since 2010 and caused the D.C. region to lag behind many large metro areas. They shared additional concerns about transportation, housing, and quality of life issues that require a cooperative regional approach.
Published in December of 2015, the Roadmap final report recommended several steps to spark economic growth and pivot away from federal government dependence. The report identified seven advanced business clusters already established in the region that had the potential to generate high-value employment growth and improve trade outside the region: Advocacy, Information Technologies, Security Technologies, Biology and Health, Business and Financial Services, Media, and Travel. Regional employment in these sectors has historically grown faster than the national rate and provides a strong basis for high-value employment growth.
The Roadmap also recommended how to support growth in these clusters, including attracting and retaining talent and developing an entrepreneurial culture. The report noted the competitive advantages of the region’s economy, such as its global connectivity, a highly educated workforce, and a diverse population.
The Roadmap project galvanized the region business community. In 2016, partner groups took ownership of various initiatives and began to work on housing affordability, promoting a culture of innovation, and addressing regional transportation issues and workforce development.
So what progress have we made so far? The newest employment data from 2016 show the region added 55,600 jobs over the year, which is lower than the growth in 2015. Among the seven advanced clusters identified in the Roadmap, only two – Advocacy and Bio-Health Technologies – had employment growth that outperformed the national rate between 2014 and 2016. In the other five clusters, regional employment growth was below the national rate, often by several percentage points. Overall, employment growth in the clusters was just under 2 percent in the region, while national employment growth in those clusters was over 6 percent.
If this underperformance continues, the region stands to lose nearly $180 billion in total economic activity between now and 2025. The Trump administration’s initial budget proposals threaten to reduce federal government expenditures and employment. According to one analysis, more than 20,000 jobs, over $800 million in procurement spending, and $1.1 billion in grants are at risk within the region.
The effort to re-brand and improve the reputation and self-image of the region has entered a fundraising phase. This campaign intends to separate the federal government’s image from that of the Washington, D.C. region, by highlighting the culture, diversity, and private business activity of the region.
Mason continues to play an important role in the Roadmap project, and related efforts include interviewing business executives, analyzing state and local economic development policies, and forecasting occupation growth.
The region retains important strengths, Mason chief among them. But steering the economy in a new direction is a challenge for all of us. Our work continues.