Let’s face it. On the proverbial plane of economic development, the District of Columbia is in the middle seat fighting for elbow room with Maryland on one side and Virginia on the other. We have a history of challenging business practices that cannot compete with the tax structures and available spaces offered to the north and south of our nation’s capital.
While Northern Virginia is known for its robust and global technology corridor, Montgomery County is known for its world-class biotechnology sector. Sure, our neighbors cannot compete with our pristine monuments, museums and our rich hospitality industry, but we need to be known for more than a federal enclave, even if our neighborhoods and quality of life do continue to improve. This growth needs to be part of our economic strategy that is sustainable for generations.
I give credit to former Mayor and Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry, whom I sparred with often during my time as president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. He set the foundation for promoting business interests in the District. Mr. Barry saw major opportunities for growth by promoting minority business interests, which he viewed as a catalyst for jobs filled by D.C. residents. Leaders like BET’s Bob Johnson and real estate mogul Don Peebles became the faces of an economic movement that began changing the image of D.C. as a strictly government town.
Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams continued the momentum, creating an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that complemented the foundation of the federal government. During his time in office, cranes of development dotted our skyline; vacant buildings were refurbished and revitalized; our neighborhoods, including a formerly desolate downtown, flourished with activity and international businesses; and site selectors started to pay attention. Our nation’s capital experienced a renaissance that has created economic vibrancy, but also challenges we must still address.
Our political and business leaders must do a better job strategizing ways for the District to become a global model for economic prosperity that supports business growth. Let’s resurrect the program that was a part of the National Capital Revitalization Corp., or a similar program that initiates public-private partnerships. In the past, Verizon, Pepco, Washington Gas and several banks engaged in this work.
Simply put, we must make it easier to do business in D.C. Let’s benchmark what is being done elsewhere, including just across the Potomac River in Virginia. In Virginia, small businesses often need only one stop to ensure they have all the necessary permits and licenses to conduct business. In the District, because there are not as many resources available, small businesses must go from office to office tracking down these same permits. Larger organizations may have the resources and time to do this, but the longer it takes a small company to open shop, the less likely it is to succeed in the long run. This must be streamlined for D.C. businesses.
The business environment today is much better than it was 15 to 20 years ago, but we still don’t compare as favorably with Virginia. We must look deeply at their work and emulate their efficiency on such issues as regulatory reform, tax structure and support for small, emerging and minority businesses.
As the nation’s capital, there is a global expectation — and hope — for this city to flourish economically and to offer a quality of life of which our businesses and residents can be proud. Mostly, that is the case today, but it has not always been that way, and there still a long journey ahead.
Barbara Lang is managing principal and CEO of Lang Strategies, a D.C. business consulting firm. She is former president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.