After the national recession and federal spending cuts, the Washington, D.C., region’s economy is different and will grow differently in the future, said Stephen Fuller, director of the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis.
“Recessions always change economies,” Fuller said at a presentation to government and business leaders Tuesday. “If we’re waiting for it to go back to the way it was, it’s going to be a very long wait.”
The center’s latest research on the local economy and the presentation were cosponsored by The 2030 Group, an organization of Washington area business leaders focusing on regional planning and development.
The region can no longer count on federal government spending to produce growth, Fuller said. While federal contractors and other businesses in the area are adjusting to that phenomenon, it’s not entirely clear in what sectors the new private sector jobs will be.
What is clear, Fuller said, is that the region must maintain a sufficient workforce and infrastructure as well as a more diverse housing market in order to achieve the levels of growth the Center for Regional Analysis is projecting.
While the Washington metropolitan area fared comparatively well during the recession, the federal budget cuts in 2011 and 2012 put an abrupt stop to that recovery, Fuller said. The region is just starting to rebound from that blow.
“Northern Virginia is running at about half speed,” he said. “It’s feeling the cutbacks in federal contracting the most.”
During the period that the across-the-board federal spending cuts were in place, growth in the D.C. area was slower than that of the U.S. economy as a whole, something that rarely happens, Fuller said.
Since the recession, low-wage service sector jobs have far outpaced the growth in middle-income and high-income jobs, Fuller said. It was the high-income-earning positions that were most affected by the cutbacks in federal spending, although growth has still continued in the top tier of the job market.
In the middle third of the income scale, the region gained fewer jobs in 2012 and 2013 than it lost in 2008 and 2009.
Over the next few years Northern Virginia and the rest of the region will begin to see new growth in the professional workforce, he said.
The Center for Regional Analysis projects modest growth over the next few years, with the region gaining about 300,000 new jobs through 2018, or about 3.5 percent per year from 2015 to 2018.
Complaining about the region’s slowing growth “is like complaining about a dent in our Bentley,” said Jim Dinegar, president and CEO of the Washington Board of Trade and a panelist at the Center for Regional Analysis event.
“Our challenge is accommodating the growth,” Dinegar said.
Local governments must ensure that the right supports are in place to feed that growth, Fuller said.
The region’s workforce is aging, with more people reaching retirement age than are entering the workforce for the first time. That means the region will continue to need to import workers from other places, Fuller said.
Those workers also will need an affordable place to live in order to be enticed to come fill jobs here, he said.
“I think there is a big need to make sure we take the housing affordability issue head on,” said panelist Matt Klein, of the Urban Land Institute Washington Chapter.
All of the panelists spoke about the importance of regional collaboration in order to address the transportation and other infrastructure needs of the region and ensure continued growth.
“I think the sky is the limit on what we can do all working together, using the federal government’s presence as a launching pad,” said Anthony Williams, former mayor of the District of Columbia and now CEO and executive director of the Federal City Council.