- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

Before improvement comes the realization that things could be better. You have to be willing to recognize and talk about problems before you can solve them.

The Potomac Conference, a gathering of regional business and government leaders that met Thursday and Friday in College Park, did not shy away from talking about the Washington area's weaknesses. Because of that, there is reason to hope at least some of the problems will be addressed.

"It was not just a feel-good place but a much more realistic and comprehensive look at the region, both good and bad," said David Rutstein, chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and senior vice president of Giant Foods Inc.

Issues such as traffic, urban sprawl and the disparity between inner-city and suburban jurisdictions when it comes to development and jobs were openly discussed.

These are the same groups that lead cheers for the economic strength of the region, singing its praise by speaking of wealth and jobs and business climate in some cases as part of an effort to bring new business to Washington. That is as it should be, but the other side of the story is just as important, and business and educational leaders stepped up at the conference to say they would do what they could to address issues of concern.

One of the major themes from the conference was increasing regionalism, the idea that the Washington area as a whole needs to get its individual parts to work together more effectively. The concept was part of the discussion at the previous two Potomac Conferences and there is general acknowledgment that participants have failed to turn the words and good intentions of the past into action.

Talk of regionalism inevitably goes beyond business groups into the domain of the governments that spend taxpayers' dollars and make land-use decisions. It also requires trying to find common ground between economic development advocates and environmental activists.

Getting the various jurisdictions and factions in the area to work together won't be easy. It is simply not possible to put regional concerns and cooperation ahead of the parochial concerns that come from residents of a neighborhood, for example. After all, it is those residents who elect public officials.

But Michael Rogers, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, sees opportunities for his group to become a guiding influence.

The group, which is made up of 22 local governments, can help by outlining the best ways to meet regional and local goals.

"We can say 'this approach will assure that all of us will achieve prosperity' and then perhaps some of the jurisdictions will adopt the policy," Mr. Rogers said.

While he acknowledges jurisdictions tend to look at issues differently, he is undaunted.

"The reality of this is that we are all interdependent of each other," he said. "We all have more in common with each other than we do with the rest of the states of Maryland or Virginia. As goes this region, so go the states."

The question of whether anything significant will come out of the conference can only be answered over time.

The differences are substantial. Fairfax County works hard to keep and attract businesses. Montgomery County is somewhat divided by differences between County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is aggressive about economic development, and the County Council, which is quick to regulate growth.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat who caters to environmentalists, provides a stark contrast to Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican who aligns himself closely with business interests, including the technology industry.

What the Potomac Conferences recognizes is that, along with the differences comes common interests that simply can't be ignored. It's a good argument that, if repeated often enough and incorporated into sound proposals, would be hard to ignore.

Perhaps it is the optimist in Mr. Rutstein that leads him to think that business interests can work together with environmentalists on at least some issues. But there is some small reason for optimism.

The announcement last month that of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and two environmental groups, the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council, had agreed to support land conservation, public transit and increased development in areas best able to support it was encouraging.

Working together is a nice concept that's hard to argue with, but efforts to make it happen will face harsh realities. Progress can be made and the recognition of business groups that cheerleading won't address problems holding the region back is not a bad start.

As Mr. Rogers put it, "In order to maximize assets, you sometimes have to look at the barriers and you have to look at how to overcome those barriers."

Bernard Dagenais, business editor of The Washington Times, can be reached at 202/636-3173.

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