The Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce’s new chairman says he wants the county’s elected officials to get the message that Montgomery County is falling behind economically, needs to get out of the liquor business and should support a proposal to widen Interstate 270 and the Beltway.
Andy Stern, owner of an office furniture business with locations in Rockville and the District of Columbia, was installed as the chair of the 600-member business group Tuesday night.
In his remarks at a dinner, he cited statistics from a report compiled earlier this year by a Baltimore economic consulting firm that painted a sobering economic picture of the county, noting that 88 net new businesses were created between 2011 and 2017, compared with more than 7,500 for the state and more than 8,000 in the District.
Stern also noted that the private sector economy in Montgomery grew 1.1 percent from 2001 to 2016, which put it 19th among 24 local jurisdictions in the region.
In an interview Wednesday, Stern said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich approached him after the speech to have a discussion. He said the county executive “took exception” to many of the suggestions in his remarks.
“He didn’t agree with those numbers and the [economic] report. I related my experience as a small business owner and how hard it is to do business. I was responding as a small business person,” Stern said.
Stern said their conversation was productive, and he looks forward to having more discussions with Elrich about business in the county.
“We [at the chamber] want to work with him,” he said.
That report also recommended that the county privatize the liquor industry, which would free up more than $193 million. Stern said in his speech Tuesday that this was a large factor in the county’s poor job growth.
“Not only is it wrong that the county is in the business of selling alcohol it is clearly one of the major reasons – or maybe the major reason – we have such a sluggish economy. And you all know what I mean. All you have to do is look at D.C. and its vibrant restaurant and bar scene and all the great economic development activity that it has created to understand,” he said.
Stern added in his speech that Gov. Larry Hogan’s highway proposal to add toll lanes to I-270 and the Beltway was “not perfect” but that the county must work with state officials to ensure the “most effective improvements possible” are made and that “transportation efficiency” is achieved.
Elrich has opposed privatizing the county’s Department of Liquor Control, and has frequently stated that he opposes the governor’s plan to widen the Beltway.
Elrich, in an interview Wednesday night, said he and Stern had a civil conversation, but declined to elaborate. The county executive reiterated his position on the governor’s proposal, saying that he opposed the Beltway widening and that there is a viable alternative to adding more lanes on I-270.
“If they can fit in reversible, they won’t do any harm to the neighborhoods. We’ve talked with [state highway administrator] Greg Slater a little bit about that,” he said.
Asked if he could work with the chamber despite their disagreements, Elrich said that wasn’t the issue.
“I don’t have to work with the chamber. I have work with the governor. The governor’s the one making the decisions,” he said.
The new chairman praised Elrich and the new County Council toward the end of the speech, noting that the county executive has called for implementing reforms that will make it easier to do business in the county.
“He’s talking about regulatory reform something else that desperately needs improvement to help create a thriving business environment. Things like expediting the permitting processes to get projects out of the ground much more quickly,” he said.
Chamber member Andy Shulman, a managing principal with the commercial real estate investment company TDG/Silverock, said the discussion was largely cordial according to Stern. Stern, he said, was praiseworthy of the new county executive.
“I thought Andy was pretty optimistic about the start the county executive had taken in wanting the county to be more business friendly,” he said.
This story has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly stated that Andy Shulman directly witnessed the discussion between Marc Elrich and Andy Stern
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org