Marilyn Balcombe is an effective advocate and community leader. She has been involved in a wide range of County and State issues that reflect the needs of Upcounty. In her role as the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce CEO, she has worked tirelessly to ensure that small businesses are able to keep their doors open during the pandemic. She is also a member of the Montgomery County Small Business Recovery Workgroup and the Upcounty COVID Community Committee, in addition to several other public outreach and recovery initiatives. She is a candidate for the County Council District 2 seat. The interview covered the topics of economy, Upcounty development, housing, transportation, workforce development and jobs and MCPS.
Nagender Madavaram: Thank you Marilyn Balcombe for joining the meeting. How is going on your campaign.
Marilyn Balcombe: Thank you so much for having me. We’re doing very well. We started early because we wanted to make sure that we got out and able to meet the community. So, we feel very strongly about the campaign. I ran in 2018 for At Large. It was a very big race. There’s such a big learning curve and back then we were learning every day how to do things. This time it’s so much easier because we’ve done so many of these things already. Most important thing is so many people know my name because I got 5th place in 28 candidates. I’m a serious campaigner. I’m a legitimate candidate, so I think that name recognition makes the difference. Currently, it’s a District 2 much smaller area. I can focus all my energy on my neighborhood and my community.
Nagender Madavaram: You are President and CEO, Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce. What business experience you can bring to the County Council?
Marilyn Balcombe: We live in a great community. Montgomery County is really a strong community. We have great schools, safe streets, great parks, but it all cost a lot of money. We need to make sure that we have a tax base that continue to afford our high quality of life. I work with businesses every day. I know what their needs are. We need to support our businesses. We need to make sure that we are business friendly. We compete with Virginia and Prince George County. We need to make a compelling reason for businesses to locate in Montgomery County and to stay in Montgomery County. I’ve been in business my whole life. I think that I can add that dimension to the Council. The Council recently added a provision where every piece of legislation has to look at how does it impact the economy. I think that’s important because sometimes a bill might look good on paper, but it has unintended consequences. I think, having business minded person on the Council is a good idea. I’m also an accountant, so from a budget perspective I understand numbers, so I think that adds great value.
Nagender Madavaram: Do you think what the County is doing right job or do we need to go in a different way to improve the economy? Are you satisfied with the current economy in the County? Do you propose any suggestions?
Marilyn Balcombe: So, you know it’s it is hard to say given the past two years. Our economy is lagging, but so is everybody else around the world because of the pandemic. There are a couple things. I think that the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation is important one. They do a great job. I think that we need to continue to support that the marketing of Montgomery County. It’s only been recent history that we’ve gone out and actually marketed Montgomery County, and we need to do more of that. We need to go nationally and globally, convince businesses to come here. I think that’s important. I would like to see more economic development in the Upcounty. As you know, Germantown and Clarksburg are unincorporated. We don’t have additional funding for economic development. I mean to see more focus on bringing jobs to this area. There’s a general perception that Montgomery County is not business friendly. I think that the county has done a lot of things to change that perception and so we need to do a better job in marketing. We need to remember that so often the dialogue is that it’s either business or residence. It’s a pitting against each other businesses or schools or transportation or libraries, but that’s not how it works. It is a microcosm. We need to make sure that all aspects of the County are healthy and that includes our economy.
Nagender Madavaram: In Upcounty, I don’t see big jobs in this area. What is the reason?
Marilyn Balcombe: Yeah, that’s been a problem, Germantown original master plan was balanced with residential, retail and commercial jobs. We have residential and retail but we don’t have the big jobs and that’s an issue. It’s an issue for two reasons. One is that Germantown is the largest community in the County but it is unincorporated and it’s larger than Bethesda and Silver Spring but we don’t have the economic focus. So that is a problem. Clarksburg has 30,000 residences with very little commercial entities. I feel it’s not just an upcoming issue, I think it’s a County wide issue. It’s a regional issue. We have commercial density up and down. I think that the Council and the County Executive need to focus on that.
Nagender Madavaram: The County got $18 billion investment in life sciences and 800 million from venture capitalists. Is this investment just accidental or indication of economic growth?
Marilyn Balcombe: No, it’s not accidental. So, when we think about biotech industry, that’s an area where Montgomery County is competitive. We have NIH in Montgomery County, no one else in the world has that asset. I don’t think the investment is an accident.
Nagender Madavaram: Housing is complex problem in the County. How do you solve it?
Marilyn Balcombe: Housing is difficult issue to figure out. We need more housing. There is a housing shortage. The County wide, there is a significant shortage of housing and so the new general plan Thrive Montgomery 2050 is adding a significant number of housings. We need to look at what some people call the missing middle, smaller and less expensive homes where people who currently can’t afford to purchase a home. So, there has to be lower price units for people to enter the housing market. So, I work with the hospitals, we have two hospitals in our Chamber. Some hospital staff can’t afford to live in Montgomery County that created a significant challenge during the pandemic when the staff lived an hour away. We heard about our teachers, firefighters, police officers, people on the lower income can’t afford to live in the County. It’s a workforce that if we can’t get people to their jobs then that’s a problem. We need the transportation infrastructure. My solution is having more jobs in Germantown will release transportation south of Germantown. So, we need more jobs in Germantown and more housing closer. We need people to be able to afford housing closer to their jobs and then we need transportation. Yes, we need more transit but we need all of the above. We need safer pedestrian streets and we need more bike lanes. It’s not transit versus roads. It’s transit and roads.
Nagender Madavaram: New developments are giving 15% of houses to low-income groups but that doesn’t solve the problem as the number of low-income people is very high. How do you address the issue?
Marilyn Balcombe: I think what the issue is, basic economics of 101, it’s supply and demand. We don’t have enough housing units. Some people don’t want to see any more growth in the County. I agree that we have a housing shortage and that we need more housing. The issue is that we need different price points. I’ve been here for almost 30 years and when I bought my house it was affordable. I live in a townhouse. I live in a modest townhouse in Germantown. If I had to buy that house again, it would be very difficult for me because of the value of the houses. You know, I bought a house 30 years ago for $180,000. You can’t buy a house for $180,000 today. You can’t even buy a house with twice the amount in Montgomery County. So, we have to look at different price points. We have to look at duplexes. We have to look at different multifamily homes where people can have a home. It’s not as large as homes that have been built in the past 20 years. Cottages are another area. The zoning in the County has to change because it’s going to change the landscape of Montgomery County. We need to have a very serious conversation of what that means. We want to protect our neighborhoods. It makes sense to add the housing in your transit because of the transportation issue. It’s a very complex question but we have to solve it. Currently, Thrive Montgomery 2050 is in the County Council. It’s going through committee at the County Council. It offers a lot of these solutions and there’s opposition. Significant opposition to it because it’s going to change the nature of some areas. I support additional housing in Montgomery County.
Nagender Madavaram: Politicians told various solutions for transportation problem in 2018 elections but nothing worked out. Traffic problem is getting worse in Upcounty. What solutions you can propose?
Marilyn Balcombe: We have to look at roads. There is a discussion about the I-270 project and the American Legion Bridge that will alleviate the morning rush hour. You know M-83 road was never built, and there’s been attempts through the years to get it taken out of the master plan. It’s still in the master plan and I just feel like you know you can’t put 30,000 people in a community and not increase capacity. So, I think that we need to move that forward in terms of promises. I can’t promise anything because it used to be nine votes, but the next Council will be with 11 Council members. I’ve been in the County for a long time, and one of the issues is that the geography of the Upcounty is different than the geography and the down county. When people talk about transit, they’re thinking about Silver Spring or Bethesda but they’re not thinking about Clarksburg or Germantown or Darnestown or Poolesville for that matter. We can’t walk to the bus stop. So, I think BRT on 355 is good. I don’t think it’s a solution because a significant number of people don’t live walking distance to the BRT. I think that we cannot solve the transportation problems of the Upcounty with transit alone. We have to increase road capacity.
Nagender Madavaram: There is general perception in the Council that if you add more lanes to the roads then more cars will be on the roads. They argue that adding more lanes to 355 or 270 is not a solution. Some people think differently that more lanes accommodate more cars and ease traffic. What is your stand on it?
Marilyn Balcombe: So, I’m not a traffic engineer. I’ve been working on transportation for 20 years. Some people would drive 3 hours to their job but they might drive an hour and a half to their job if roads are good. So, I don’t believe that if the roads bigger then more people will be on that road. Are we going to say no more people are allowed to come to the County anymore? That’s not the right solution. It underscores my issue with transportation, jobs and housing. When you talk about the cost of transportation it will be billions of dollars. Let’s talk more about more jobs and housing up here. The main reason the transportation is so bad is because people are trying to get from their house to their job. So, if we could shorten the length between the house and the job then that will help transportation. I feel like we can’t just say no more roads, because if we build roads people will drive on them well. That’s what we want. I think that we do need a mass transit component on I-270 and also, we should increase bus service. Now on I-270 bus service should be free. Express buses should be free on I-270. The Germantown Transit Center is one of the busiest transit centers in the system. The parking lot is a mess. If the parking is better more people use the transit center. So, I think that transit is part of the solution. If we did build M83 road there should be free express bus service on that road.
Workforce Development and Jobs:
Nagender Madavaram: You mentioned about the workforce development. There is a concern that many companies are moving out due to lack of skilled workers. We have unemployed youth working in restaurants after getting graduated. Unless you have a qualified human resources you don’t attract employers. What model can we adopt to train more people to keep the companies in the County?
Marilyn Balcombe: I think you’ve hit on very complex issue. So, we just live in a transient society now and people don’t stay in jobs for a long time. It takes a lot of money and time to train people that’s an issue. So, I think that we need to look at the structure of postsecondary education. In terms of how long it takes someone to go from high school to a job and I’m really interested in more technical skills certification programs. I believe in a liberal arts education. I think it’s important to be a citizen of the world. Good to have an educational background in liberal arts, but from an economic perspective it may not be what we need in the 21st century. I would like to see more certification programs and look at a specific job and ask what those requirements are for the job. Maybe it’s a two-year certificate or an 18-month training program to get in that job. We’ve got the largest percentage of doctorates in the country. That’s because of NIH and FDA, that attracts smart people. We need to make sure that the school system K through 12 MCPS to be able to attract highly intelligent people. If the biotech industry is a critical industry for us, we need to make sure that we support it. Making sure that people still want to come here. I also think that we need to look at our visa process for bringing people into jobs because people are coming here from all over the world.
Nagender Madavaram: Is there any system in the County which keeps track of requirements of the job market? I mean, do we have a database to indicate the trend of current and future job market in the County?
Marilyn Balcombe: I think that’s an interesting question. I would assume that Worksource Montgomery and the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation may have the data. I know that there is strong partnership among MCPS, Montgomery College and the universities at Shady Grove. What we need is more involvement from employers. I think that from a career development perspective, there’s a lot to be said for letting young people figure it out and explore. Certainly not everybody needs to go to college to be successful. I think, as a society we need to change our perception of what is success.
Nagender Madavaram: MCPS is attracting attention of the residents for wrong reasons. MCPS confused the residents about school schedule and virtual classes. Redistricting also enticing criticism from various quarters. The Councilmembers get requests all the time from the residents though it is the responsibility of the Board of Education. Nearly half of the County budget goes to schools but school board members are not paid to work fulltime.
Marilyn Balcombe: I think you bring up an important issue. So, the way it is structured, the County Council has virtually no oversight over the school board except for the funding. The funding is very formulaic in that there’s not a lot of leeway for funding. Nobody thinks that the schools are getting too much money. One issue you raised was the school board is a part time body, yet they have control over half of the budget and so there’s been discussion about whether the school board should be a fulltime. The school board has significant budget implications. We have some really great schools. Some of the top schools in the nation are in Montgomery County, but we also have some schools that aren’t performing well. I just don’t understand why not all children have equal access to quality education. I think that we need to figure that out because the boundary study discussion was so volatile and so passionate. You know, people don’t want to move to a different school because they’re concerned about the quality of education in other school. I think that if we could guarantee every school in the district has the same level of quality education then students would move to new school. I do understand the County Council has been frustrated for very long time that they don’t have oversight of the schools except funding.
Nagender Madavaram: Do you have anything to say before we conclude the session?
Marilyn Balcombe: I do, only two very quick things; one is protection of the agricultural reserve. We have a great asset in Montgomery County and that’s the agricultural reserve. I believe very strongly that we need to protect the reserve. Not only for recreation, but farming. You know farming is a business and we need to protect our local farms, but also environmentally you know the agricultural reserve is very important. I’m a strong advocate of protecting the agricultural reserve. Second one is we need a strong representative from the Upcounty in the council because we used to be one of nine voices. In the next County Council, we are one of 11 voices. We need that person to be strong and making sure that the rest of the Council understands the needs of the Upcounty. I’ve been here for 30 years. I don’t feel like we got our fair share and want to make sure that happens.