The pandemic has wreaked havoc on many Montgomery County businesses. Maryland’s most populous county – there are more than 1 million residents for the first time, according to the 2020 census – in recent years had become an economic engine for the Washington metro area. But Montgomery County over the past year-and-a-half has, like so many localities, had to deal with business closures, stalled expansion plans and a range of other economic challenges.
Helping steer the county out of the economic morass is Benjamin H. Wu, president of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC). Wu brings to the role a wealth of experience at all levels of government. Under Gov. Larry Hogan, he was commerce deputy secretary and CEO. Previously, he held two positions under President George W. Bush and for 13 years was counsel to Rep. Connie Morella and the Technology Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, which the Maryland Republican congresswoman chaired.
In 2021 The Daily Record named Wu an “Influential Marylander.” Montgomery Magazine spoke to the Montgomery County native about what comes next in efforts to grow the local economy to the point it flourishes when the pandemic finally fades.
Montgomery Magazine: Are there any statistics or figures that illustrate the economic effects of COVID-19 on the Montgomery County business community?
Benjamin H. Wu: The global economy was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Montgomery County has not been immune. We did hit a record mark for unemployment, but our local economy is resiliently coming back. There’s a lot of room for optimism about our future recovery.
In May 2020, as the pandemic’s effects first took hold, business restrictions and shutdowns drove our unemployment rate to 8.6%, well above our February 2020 rate of 2.8%. A year later, our May 2021 unemployment rate has fallen by three percentage points to 5.6%. This is below the national and state levels. Comparatively, Maryland’s unemployment rate for the same period was 9.3% in May 2020 and 6.1% in May 2021.
This recovery could not be happening without a commitment from all our key economic stakeholders, from government to industry to academia. We’re ready to fully bounce back, but we now need to seize opportunities from this crisis, fully leverage our assets and make the right choices to build a stronger Montgomery County economy. We’ll need to continue working together to get to the other side of this pandemic.
MM: What industries and types of businesses in Montgomery County have been hit the hardest from the COVID-19 pandemic?
BW: Our data has shown that the hospitality and food services industries have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. These include hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, breweries, bars and others.
That’s one of the reasons we’ve been particularly attentive to the need to support these industries. We recognize that many local businesses, and the workers they employ, have been adversely impacted by the pandemic and the restrictions adopted to remain open for business. MCEDC has aggregated direct business assistance funds from federal, state and local sources to help these industries stay open, continue operations and reimagine new ways of doing business during the pandemic.
As a result, MCEDC will have allocated $22 million to Montgomery County nonprofits and local businesses during the pandemic, including grants to over 1,000 restaurants and retailers. Our unique 3R initiative to aid restaurants and retail, which included MoCo Marketplace (an online directory to connect consumers to local businesses), was recently recognized with an economic development program award.
To further support the reopening of businesses, MCEDC also worked to create the #MaskUpMoCo campaign to encourage the proper use of face masks for employees and customers. Working with our county partners, MCEDC developed the theme, graphics and messaging for the campaign that resulted in signage for local businesses, shopping centers, bus stops and bike share stations. Signs were translated into multiple languages and included clear guidance on proper mask-wearing. In addition, flyers were produced and replicated in multiple languages to get the word out to diverse communities of the county. Businesses from across the county have posted the signage to extend the reach.
MM: Are companies that were considering moving to Montgomery County, or expanding current business operations here, holding off until the pandemic has mostly wound down? Or are they continuing unabated?
BW: During an economic crisis, you must double down on your best core assets. In Montgomery County, we’re globally renowned for our life sciences industry. Even during the pandemic, or maybe because of it, our life science industry continues to be one of our most significant economic development priorities.
In 2020, our life sciences industry grew exponentially in Montgomery County, and its remarkable success is continuing in the first half of 2021. Not only are local bio companies playing critical roles in the development of lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, but others are also actively fighting multiple diseases, from lupus to Parkinson’s disease.
We’ve seen many major international and domestic life sciences companies choosing to locate or expand in Montgomery County. These vaccine, cell and gene therapy companies are coming with large capital investments and new high-paying innovation jobs. This is why Montgomery County is known as “the immunology capital next to the nation’s capital.”
For example, we’ve had almost $8 billion in 2020 federal, private and foundational funding invested in life sciences companies with a Montgomery County presence for coronavirus vaccine research and other immunotherapeutic developments. Novavax and Emergent BioSolutions were among the first recipients of federal Operation Warp Speed funding of more than $5.5 billion to fight COVID-19.
One thing to note: Bio companies need most of their workforce to be on site, in state-of-the market laboratory space. There is high demand for these spaces, given the many assets here in Montgomery County, including proximity to the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration and a highly educated talent pool.
MM: Having worked in Congress and then the Maryland governor’s administration, you have a unique view on interplay among various levels of government. What can officials in Washington, D.C., and Annapolis do to help localities spur economic growth?
BW: Addressing the pandemic and providing for an economic recovery has been a priority focus in Washington, Annapolis and Rockville. We’re seeing record amounts of federal spending appropriated from Congress to the states, which are in turn passing the largesse to the localities. This federal, state and local dynamic will shape economic growth at all levels in the near-term.
To be successful, there needs to be greater coordination and collaboration. At MCEDC, we’re working with several organizations to support partnership initiatives locally, regionally and state-wide. These include local federal engagement programs with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the NIH and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among others. We also have biodefense and quantum science programs with regional entities, such as ConnectedDMV and the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
MM: Montgomery County has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state. But, of course, in the region people regularly move between Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., in addition to travel further out. Are you concerned about stalled vaccination rates outside of Montgomery County affecting economic activity and growth?BW: We appreciate that Montgomery County, the State of Maryland and the Greater Washington region are leaders when it comes to vaccination rates. According to The Washington Post tracker (as of Sept. 22): 70.0% of Marylanders, 69.7% of District of Columbia residents and 67.7% of Virginians have had at least one dose of the vaccine.
And we’re especially proud that so many life science companies in the thick of developing vaccines and therapies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic locally and globally can be found right here in Montgomery County.