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Here are your lessons on collaboration from Greater Washington nabbing Amazon HQ2

Regional economic development leaders dished on teamwork at the #WeDC house at the SXSW conference in Austin.

D.C. Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner, Montgomery County's David Petr, Jason Miller of the Greater Washington Partnership and Michael Akin of Link Strategic at SXSW19. ( file photo)
Here’s a new standard for regional collaboration: an active group text thread among economic development honchos.

Turns out that during the hotly contested battle for Amazon HQ2, the much-coveted high-paying jobs bonanza that dominated policy circles for the last year, there was something like a pact of unity developing in the DMV. You’d be forgiven for thinking quite the opposite. The D.C. metro area had more Amazon HQ2 bids than coffee shops near McPherson Square.

If you didn’t count, others did: the three regional finalists (D.C. and Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Md.) plus a scattershot of others, from Prince George’s County to Baltimore (and a neighborhood within Baltimore).

It might have seemed that the region was being pulled apart across so many bids, that there was a dilution in the coordination.

Behind the scenes, though, there was the most informal and intimate of cross-jurisdiction diplomacy: a group text thread between Brian Kenner, D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development; David Petr, the CEO of Maryland’s Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation and Victor Hoskins, the Director of the Arlington Economic Development, whose Northern Virginia city eventually won the Amazon HQ2 bid.

Multiple bids from the region were submitted to Amazon, but the three agreed that “If one of us got it, we’re all going to win,” said Petr. The broad strokes of this became public: representatives of the three published letters of coordination addressing education, transportation and housing.

The message was meant to be clear: “Irrespective of which bid in the DMV you pick, you have three partners,” said Jason Miller, who in April 2017 became the inaugural CEO of the Greater Washington Partnership, formed to speed the development of a regional identity from Richmond, Va. to Baltimore.

Miller, Petr and Kenner discussed their budding regionalism during a Monday panel at SXSW, moderated by Michael Akin, the president of Link Strategic Partners, a communications firm. Akin was among the ‘WeDC Ambassadors’ that the District’s economic development group WDCEP enlisted as part of its activation at the sprawling creative, tech and arts festival in Austin. (Check out the 10 DC startups that demoed there)

Perhaps this was a compelling message to the Amazon site selection team. Or maybe the deal was always done — it became assumed logic in our newsroom that Northern Virginia was the clear favorite with its space, workforce and proximity to policymakers as Amazon looks likely to become among the most regulated companies in the world. Whatever the case, having secured the most stable of the HQ2 options (read our look at its impact on the region’s workforce), it’s clear to see not all adjacent bids had such successful coordination.

In fall 2017, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) grumbled to a gathering of civic leaders in Philadelphia that Delaware and Pennsylvania’s bids weren’t coordinated enough. State officials in Missouri were torn enough between St. Louis and Kansas City that they pledged they’d connect the two with a Hyperloop train. New York appears to have never quelled festering unease with their own bid, enough so that after grabbing hold of the most coveted economic prize of a generation, it’s slipped from their hold.

It seems when Amazon created its 20-city short-list, there was a spate of public support. New Jersey leaders rallied behind Newark’s bid, and Coons was in Philadelphia to meet with that city’s Mayor Jim Kenney to express his personal support. In the DMV it was more complex still, as there were still three bids, D.C., Montgomery County Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Still, Kenner said he was almost immediately on a conference call with his peers at the other jurisdictions to coordinate joint incentives.

The Greater Washington Partnership got all of the region’s universities across jurisdictions to jointly support. The trio developed a plan for the impact of an estimated 25,000 jobs, and Kenner noted that the process allowed them to collaboratively discuss the region’s challenges that extend beyond a massive corporate office.

As an example, he said, “We know housing is a problem whether or not Amazon comes.”

Is this collaboration talk something like sweet grapes, a rosy-colored revising of a bare-knuckled economic incentive now that the deal got done? Hoskins, the Arlington representative on that group text thread, after all, has called his regional collaborators “frienemies.” (Hoskins formerly had Kenner’s role in the city).

They say no. Kenner notes that they all agreed they needed to have an external perspective putting their constituents first but could maintain internal coordination. (The tight timeline of six weeks offered by Amazon for the initial bid was a factor in keeping more broadly sweeping collaboration, which has earned Amazon criticism.)

“We were all selling the same product. That was the talent in the region,” said Miller.

The strong coordination, particular in contrast to other regions, will pay further dividends, they said.

Petr said Montgomery County will benefit downstream from Northern Virginia’s win in this case and has become more prepared for this new stage of economic development.

“What do I think about losing Amazon? It’s an incredible point of validation for the full region, from Baltimore down to Richmond, but it also raised our profile [specifically],” he said, of his suburban district competing for global brands. “Montgomery County then pitched Apple because we were so deep into the Amazon process.”

“I think more will come to Greater Washington now that they’re disinvesting in NYC,” Petr added, which must be a source of night terrors for economic development leaders in the country’s largest city.

Akin, of Link, noted the inherent and ongoing challenge of regional collaboration for economic development: companies spend money regionally but vote locally. Miller said there’s no choice. Though D.C. proudly is among the densest regions in country for tech jobs, the growth is slow. In 2017, the District’s GDP grew less than Pennsylvania, Ohio or Virginia. Amazon HQ2 can change that.

“This is the sort of thing that can facilitate that growth we need. This region needs that kind of collaboration,” Miller said. “Thirty or 40 years ago, when all employment was government and employees were just being shuffled around, the regions competed.”

It’s not rational now. When a company grows here, it’s good for all of us.”

Companies: Washington, DC Economic Partnership / Amazon / SXSW
Series: Amazon HQ2

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