Rockville will call on an expert in the region’s economy and take a look at the city’s future through the eyes of local leaders at “The Rockville Summit: Road Map for the Future,” on Tuesday at VisArts in Rockville Town Square.
Fuller wrote a 25-page report on the city’s “current economic conditions and future directions,” which will frame the conversation. The Rockville City Council approved the study at the suggestion of Councilman Mark Pierzchala. The council voted to spend $15,000 on the report and Fuller’s participation in conversations with city officials and in Tuesday’s summit.
“The idea is to start a discussion about Rockville’s strengths, growth opportunities and its relative competitiveness in the county and possibly the region,” Fuller said in an interview last week.
After the presentation, a panel will discuss the report in a question and answer session. The panel will include local government, education, civic, nonprofit and business leaders.
Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney will moderate.
About 200 people had registered to attend as of late last week, city officials said.
In the report, Fuller looks at what he called the “three legs” of Rockville’s economy: The residential-based economy, the business center-based economy and the government sector.
The residential-based economy includes the retail and consumer-supported services that support the city's increasingly wealthy household mix, Fuller said.
“Sixty percent of the households living in Rockville have lived there 10 or fewer years and they have a significantly higher income than some of the people who have lived there for years,” he said. The trend of the city’s population is older, more ethnically diverse, better educated and wealthier, he said.
The business center economy, provides jobs and “largely serves markets that aren’t local,” Fuller said.
Only 10 percent of the people who work in Rockville are Rockville residents, Fuller said. Many Rockville residents commute to Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia.
The biggest challenge to economic growth facing Rockville—and the region—is “the availability of qualified workforce,” Fuller writes in the report. “Rockville exports three-quarters of its labor resources to employers located outside the city. While this generates household income and market capacity to support local businesses, it also illustrates the lost economic potential that utilizing this local workforce locally would represent.”
The local government sector, which stems from Rockville’s status as the county seat, combines elements of the residential-based and the business center economies, the report says.
All three separate but interdependent economies need retail sales, food services and other support by the hospitality center, Fuller said. This creates a synergy that provides Rockville with an economic vitality that not many suburban communities have, he said.
“Rockville isn’t a suburb really,” he said. “It’s an old city that’s framed around transportation and its markets.”
There aren’t any substantive economic forecasts for Rockville, Fuller said. So, in looking to the future of the city, he turned to forecasts for Montgomery County. From there, he could “pick from a menu of growth opportunities and strengths identified for the county and apply them to Rockville.”
The city’s future economic strength will depend on residential growth, which includes higher-density development, Fuller writes in the report.
“The residents of Rockville are an important market segment and one that has become substantially stronger over the past ten years,” he writes. Population and income growth “is essential” to sustaining the retail businesses and services that make the city an attractive place for employers, he writes. Attracting employers and investment to the city’s business center strengthens the city’s tax base on both the residential and the business side.
Strategic policy decisions need to be made to foster the right kind of growth, Fuller said.
While population growth “is inevitable in this region,” he said, governments must look at their zoning and ask what they want their cities and counties to be. “Do you want [growth] to happen on its own or do you want to try to manage it?” he said.
On the business regulation front, “Maryland generally has been suffering not a true criticism, but one that has some truth that it’s hard to do business [in Maryland] and it’s not as business-friendly as Virginia,” Fuller said. “That can’t be all true, but the reputation isn’t good. Rockville is sensitive to that.”
Maryland officials seem increasingly sensitive as well. On Monday, Gov. Martin O'Malley issued an executive order charging state agencies to conduct a 60-day review of business regulations. From the review, O'Malley hopes to bring a package of construction projects and possibly an increase in the gasoline tax to the General Assembly in January that would be aimed at creating and retaining jobs.
Fuller’s report takes a macro view of the city’s economy and leaves the details—such as a vision for Rockville Town Center and redevelopment of Rockville Pike—largely to city planners.
History and geography provide Rockville important economic advantages and makes it unique in the region, Fuller said.
“Bethesda has some of [Rockville’s] flavor, but it doesn’t have the residential mix,” he said. Rockville is a bit more like Alexandria, Va. or Frederick, he said.
“It has a city center and it has several types of rail,” he said. At one point, before automobiles led to the creation of the Washington suburbs, Rockville was “a free-standing place,” Fuller said.
Because of that history, Rockville has “a full range of housing and commercial activities and it has an identity,” he said.
Rockville has a name, a boundary, a municipal government, an image, Fuller said.
“One of its real advantages is it’s a place,” he said. Many jurisdictions in metro region “don’t have a sense of place.”
“You say Germantown to most people, they can’t envision what that is,” he said.
Rockville is a bigger version of Fairfax City, Va. “only with better balance and size,” Fuller said. “[Rockville] has the market capacity to attract most any retail activity and a balanced tax base.”
The city has low unemployment and a strong revenue base that has remained strong through the economic downturn, he said.
It’s a “great time as we’re coming out of [an economic] downturn” for Rockville to be considering its economic future, he said.
Saddled with the loss of businesses and struggling to compete with the surrounding county, Fairfax City took on a “much smaller effort” to examine its economy a few years ago, said Fuller, who participated in that effort.
“Most cities do this when they have a problem—their economy is limping along they’ve lost a major employer and they’re down,” Fuller said. “Rockville’s unique in they’re doing this and they have a pretty bright future. … It’s a positive approach.”
To learn more about the summit visit www.rockvillemd.gov/summit or call 240-314-8100.