Nagender Madavaram is the editor of the BetterMoCo.com portal. He discussed with Gabe Albornoz, Councilmember At-Large and the Council Vice President about his vision, agenda and issues facing the County. This is the second of a 2-part transcript of the interview which covered topics of traffic, economic development, jobs and the Council relationship with the County Executive.
Nagender Madavaram: You are running for the Council At Large seat. The upper county is facing a severe traffic problem. I-270 and route 355 are not meeting the growing needs of the upper county. The majority of the residents wanted expansion of I-270 to make their travel comfortable but the Silver Spring area is opposing expansion of I-270. What is your stand on it?
Gabe Albornoz: Really it is a good question, so let me just say for context. I travel a lot to the upper part of the county and make it my business to go across the entire county. Understandably, people in the upper part of the county for some time have felt that there hasn’t been done much, beyond the great work of my colleague Councilmember Rice, who represents that district. There’s a feeling that in the past, maybe At-Large members not have been as engaged as they should be. I am part of the efforts of all three of my colleagues At-Large Councilmembers, Will Jawando, Evan Glass and Hans Riemer, all four of us have tried to be very intentional about listening to and reaching out to our constituents in the upper part of the county. There is no question that the challenges with transportation and the gridlock are impacting quality of life. It’s not just during rush hour traffic, it’s not just during the morning and afternoon or evening. It’s getting worsened. I believe this strongly is the issue of mass transit projects versus road projects. We do need both and we need to look at reasonable solutions that take into account the impact on climate and communities. What would be the most impacted by the potential widening of certain highways including 270? I think that all of it needs to be looked at, analyzed and discussed. We’re doing that. We should be looking also at the additional solutions that go beyond just the purview of the county, and even the state. I think we need to extend the Red Line metro through Frederick. I think that we need to look at bus rapid transit on 355 and then restructure 355 so that it provides yet another reasonable alternative location to people who want to travel to and from the upper part of the county. We need to focus more on the expansion of lanes in Frederick around Urbana. It’s no secret that the bottleneck that occurs and the amount of people that are traveling to and from Frederick is contributing to the problem. We need to look at economic development opportunities in Germantown and Clarksburg. If we had more robust economic opportunities in those parts of the county the people would not need to travel to Virginia or DC, or other parts of the county. We also need to incentivize teleworking and the pandemic has provided some opportunities for us. Finally, we also need to look at mass transit options on 270. Some of the biggest issues I had with the governor’s plan initially were that it did not include any mass transit options but only toll lines. I think he has pivoted recently and made some commitments that he is going to be looking at very seriously and moving forward with mass transit options on 270. This is not just a Montgomery County issue, we need to work closely with our friends in neighboring jurisdictions because we need to think about these transit issues and transportation issues as a region.
Nagender Madavaram: Regarding extending the Red Line to Frederick, Northern Virginia laid new metro lines but not Montgomery County. Is the extension of the Red Line financially viable?
Gabe Albornoz: It is not cheap; It would be an extraordinarily expensive project and it will take a partnership with our federal government and the neighboring states. It would take some creative solutions to partner with our private sector to expand the line. If Virginia can do it with the development and expansion of the Silver Line, there’s no reason we can’t do it. I think that we have to be bold and push more for projects that will make a difference.
Nagender Madavaram: There is a general feeling in Upcounty residents that the county administration does not allocate sufficient resources to them. For example, a library building was promised in the master plan in Clarksburg but it was not constructed yet.
Gabe Albornoz: They are legitimate feelings because there were commitments made to people who purchased their homes in Clarksburg and they are beautiful homes and it is a wonderful community but they were promised amenities that they have not yet received in addition to the library you mentioned. There’s also the Aquatic and Recreation Center which I’m intimately familiar with the story. When DC, Maryland and Virginia bound together to make an application to host the Summer Olympics, The Natatorium, the Aquatic Center would have been in Clarksburg. That’s where it would have been built but the region lost the bid to Los Angeles, which is where the Olympics will be. That’s just a fun little story or anecdote, but there’s no question that we need to do more to invest in the Upcounty. We have a tight capital improvement program budget. It’s difficult now to include the library, the third highest line item in terms of cost and the overall operating budget of the county government. There is a lot of debt service that we already have on the books that we have to pay down. These are wise investments that really make a difference in the communities. With the infusion of cash from the federal government in a variety of ways, we’re in a much better position than we have been in my public life time. We actually will have some money to make those investments together with county and federal funds.
Nagender Madavaram: Are you happy with the economic development in the county? Last year the Washington Post published a report that Prince George’s County is performing better than MoCo in economic development and jobs creation. Fairfax county is also doing well. Is MoCo not doing well? What is your vision to speed up the economic development in the county?
Gabe Albornoz: Well, I think it’s partly true that we have not been able to enhance economic development that has kept pace as we compare ourselves with other parts of the region, but if we compare ourselves with other parts of the country, Montgomery County actually fares very well. There was a listing in Fortune 500 among the 5000 fastest growing companies in the United States and 41 of them are in Montgomery County. One of them is in the top ten. I think what we need to do is several things; number one, we need to do a better job working with and supporting the businesses that already exist. We can do that through commitments, connections and policies. We can provide incentives but at the end of the day, it’s other businesses who are going to be the best for recruiting other businesses, and if they are spewing negative comments about our economic infrastructure and our economic environment, then it’s going to be hard to overcome. So, step one to me is to offer better support and help to existing businesses. Marriott was founded in Montgomery County and started out as a small family-owned business like so many businesses and it grew over time. The second thing that we need to do is to take better advantage of our existing assets as we have a lot of them. Number one, our biomedical infrastructure, particularly with what’s going on with the global pandemic and the renewed focus on biomedical health. It is a tremendous opportunity, and we need to help that sector by further investing in them and making it as easy as possible for businesses to grow and develop here. Another example is our hospitality industry. Marriott is the largest hospitality company in the world and there isn’t any reason why we wouldn’t or shouldn’t be providing incentives to offshoot that and become the hospitality capital of the world. We are among the most educated communities in the entire country with a significant percentage of our population having their second degree. The fact that over 40% of our population speaks English as a second language is also an asset in a global economy. How do we better leverage the fact that so many people speak multiple languages here? The third thing we need to do to improve our economic infrastructure is that we need to continue to better provide incentives and emphasize those areas of the county that want to grow and have the infrastructure for growth. We haven’t been able to get the right spark. I’m thinking of communities like White Oaks and Germantown that have not yet met their full potential. Bethesda is doing great and there are other parts of the county that could become the next Bethesda and by saying that I don’t mean gentrification. I don’t mean pushing residents out but what I mean is providing economic development opportunities that raises everyone.
Nagender Madavaram: Former County Executive Ike Leggett initiated a separate corporation to speed up economic development. How is the Economic Development Corporation performing?
Gabe Albornoz: There have been a number of lessons learned through our Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation. They are under the relatively new leadership of Ben Wu, who assumed directorship of the department in the last year, in the midst of a pandemic, which is a tough transition for anyone. I think that they market the county well but they need help. They can’t do this on their own. They need Montgomery County government, Worksource Montgomery, Universities at Shady Grove and Montgomery College to become strong partners. It’s unfair of us to expect MCEDC to do this entirely on their own. They need support and the same is true of our MCPS. It’s unfair to put all of the academic achievement responsibilities 100% and exclusively on their back. I would like to see more growth of the MCEDC and I know they would too. I’d like to see them much more creative in their approaches. I also would like to see them reach out for help more often than they currently do. I think a combination of all those factors will help improve the current situation.
Nagender Madavaram: Around 130,000 unfilled vacancies are in this region and more than 130,000 unemployed graduates are available but their skills are not the matching jobs requirement. Most Black and Hispanic students are not getting the opportunity to work in high tech jobs with the result they are failing to pay their student loans. How do you train the youth to fill the vacancies?
Gabe Albornoz: Well, it’s a huge issue and you hit on so many important issues in this interview. I really appreciate the complexity of the questions and they’re all connected. Everything we’ve talked about is inter-connected. We need to be more intentional about not just attracting businesses, but attracting them to the Universities of Shady Grove. I think we need to bring back more apprenticeships within companies as was once the case. I think that we need to make sure that we make it easier for businesses to be able to connect to students in a very real and authentic way, so that they can have more deeper connections to job opportunities that are out there. We need to make sure that Universities of Shady Grove and Montgomery College are conducting coursework and providing the courses that actually do lead to jobs directly. The biomedical space as an example, has a ton of vacancies to your point and these are good jobs with six figure salaries. They just can’t be filled right now because our immigration system is completely broken. We have not been able to attract and get international professional workers because of the complex and challenging immigration system. I think that we also need to be more intentional about identifying those high growth job areas and being more intentional as early as middle and high school level to connecting students with those opportunities. That is something within our purview of control that we can help. Make them aware of what’s out there, what’s available, and give them some suggestions and ideas on where to go to secure those positions. I participated, almost ten years ago, in something called the Night Time Economy Taskforce. Basically, this group was put together to figure out how to make Montgomery County desirable for young professionals. Jobs are an important aspect but so were many others. There are fun things to do and places to go in our county. They’re seeking a high quality of life that is reasonable so that’s connected to this too. That is also something that the county is in better control of than the private sector. The cost of college and return on investment is not what it used to be and that’s a problem. That is not something Montgomery County is going to be able to tackle on its own. For sure, we need help from the Biden administration and Congress to make resources available, not just through loan forgiveness programs, which are great, but only help those people that are fortunate enough to take advantage of them. We also need to make sure that we really look creatively and the President recently talked about making community colleges tuition free. Those are good steps.
Nagender Madavaram: In a world with rapidly changing technology, the main problem is that the market is two to three generations ahead of universities. Fresh graduates are not getting jobs unless they update their skills to meet the requirements of the private sector. There should be an entity to get the requirements, finance from the private sector and train the graduates to fill vacancies in the sponsored companies. Companies are moving out of the region due to lack of qualified candidates for the jobs. What is your opinion about this?
Gabe Albornoz: There have been some examples where we’ve established something close to what you’ve described. Worksource Montgomery is the non-profit entity in the county that is in the best position to carry forward on a system wide basis what you described. We haven’t done that yet. I do think that we need to conduct better outreach to some of these corporations and businesses more intentionally than we have before and find out what their needs are and then directly link students to those jobs. In Montgomery College they have a new state of the art bio-health science lab and training facility. It is an immensely impressive facility. There’s a direct line between the students who are graduating from that two-year program and the biomedical sector. Students are getting job offers from the biomedical sector. We need to expand the experience of the biomedical sector to other sectors. So, I love what you’re describing, and I think there is an opportunity for us to execute that on a much higher level.
Council Relationship with County Executive
Nagender Madavaram: Recently, the Council approved Bill 3-21, Special Taxing Area Laws – Silver Spring Business Improvement District but the County Executive vetoed it. How do you view relations between the CE and the Council?
Gabe Albornoz: It’s a good question and you know I worked in the executive branch for 12 years. I was on the other side of the aisle. There’s always some level of tension between the legislative body and executive body. They’re not always going to see eye to eye. I will say that at least early on, in Marc’s administration, we hired very impressive and competent people who did the best that they could. I think he hired too many people who were not familiar with Montgomery County. They were very smart, very accomplished but they didn’t live here and didn’t have contacts here. I think that was a challenge because in any new administration there’s going to be growing pains as you adjust and as you bring people on board. Even in the Leggett administration when he first started, there were some adjustments that had to be made to several of his department heads within his first term. I also believe that we agree much more than we disagree. It is true that there are some issues that the County Executive is particularly passionate about that the Council does not agree with. I have seen that in the last year and a half during the pandemic, when things were at their most tense with life-or-death consequences regarding the policy decisions we made, there was a real collaborative approach. Of course, mistakes were made on all sides but they were not big enough that it made me lose my faith in our government. We learned from the mistakes we made. I do think that Marc has made some recent strong internal appointments, like the appointment of Doctor Earl Stoddard as the Assistant Chief Administrative Officer. Doctor Stoddard is immensely impressive. We need to work on building back some trust in relationships. We’re not starting from scratch and we are going to see some improvement. We have to stay together because the variant is here and we are not out of the woods. Thank God we’ve gotten all this funding from the federal government but it’s still tenuous. We have to be careful. I would say overall the relationship has improved. I would say it still has a little bit of a ways to go. I’ve been impressed with some of the decisions that the County Executive has made recently. I think we are in better place than we were before.