Montgomery County Council supports economic development plan

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Montgomery County Council on Tuesday voiced support for an economic development plan aimed at bolstering current industries and attracting new ones.

The County Economic Development Corporation, with various partners, created The reportwhich focuses on four key priorities:

  • Accelerate economic drivers like the life sciences industry while developing other industries, such as hospitality technology, quantum computing, and cybersecurity
  • Develop more workforce and educational opportunities for residents
  • Building more livable and accessible communities that connect people to jobs
  • Create an inclusive economy and business ecosystem

There are dozens of more specific ideas under these four headings.

County council members praised Ben Wu and Bill Tompkins – CEO and COO of the Economic Development Corporation, respectively – for the work on the report, but also recommended focusing more on areas such as business engagement and support for affordable housing.

The report recommended that the county “aggressively recruit” more life science companies, establish a pandemic preparedness research center for vaccine development and establish incubators for hospitality technology startups.

He also recommends creating educational programs to support a future quantum technology workforce, as well as marketing the cybersecurity industry as a top sector across the county. There are also suggestions for addressing housing shortages across the workforce, whether through re-zoning for higher-density housing or partnering with larger county employers to provide housing for employees.

Council member Craig Rice said there could be more contact with businesses, especially those owned by women or minorities.

He said in conversations with his wife, Tia, he discovered that many minority-owned businesses had recently lost their leases in a local office park and had to scramble to find new leases.

He specifically asked if the Economic Development Corporation had contacted all businesses in the county and what outreach had been done. Tompkins said the company had sent letters to thousands of businesses, but agreed more could be done to reach others.

Rice quoted an NPR article on the rise of small business and entrepreneurship in recent years, despite the pandemic. He said the county should capitalize on this opportunity.

The report contains recommendations to increase opportunities for women and minority-owned businesses, such as the creation of partnership programs between the county and financial institutions to increase access to capital and training in accounting services, legal and marketing.

Council member Sidney Katz – who owned a department store in Gaithersburg for decades – said the company’s report was a good start, but there was still more to be done to help small businesses get started.

He recommended a type of 311 system for small businesses — a phone number businesses can call in times of crisis, like what Rice described with business leases expiring unexpectedly.

The business climate should be simple for entrepreneurs, Katz said.

“Most people who have a dream don’t want to read a big document to make it happen. They want to run with the ball,” he said.

Tompkins said officials are looking to further help small businesses navigate the authorization process, something larger companies often have staff to do.

Some council members said there needs to be more emphasis on affordable housing and its link to economic development. Council Deputy Chairman Evan Glass said it was important that people in working-class jobs such as firefighters, police officers and hospital nurses could live close to their jobs.

Even with the Economic Development Strategic Plan, Council Chairman Gabe Albornoz recommended that the Economic Development Corporation and other partners have a more streamlined version for business. Wu said he and his colleagues would help lead that effort.

Albornoz said a simplified version should be available soon to help businesses facing competition in the Washington, DC area.

“We need our business community to sing from the hills about all the great things in this document, and to do that we need a consolidated and coordinated effort,” he said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at [email protected]

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