Region Forward Blog

Can the region create an innovation cluster in Southeast Washington?

Apr 4, 2011


John Mataya Regional Planner

The topic of the most recent National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) Speaker Series event was Regional Innovation Clusters or RICs. The March 29 event brought together federal and local officials seeking new ways to collaborate to address some of metro Washington’s key regional challenges and discuss how tackling these challenges aligns with the Obama administration’s economic development priorities. Creating a regional innovation cluster around the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) headquarters at the Saint Elizabeths Campus in Southeast Washington DC was the proposal under discussion.

So what is a RIC? NCPC describes a RIC as a “geographic concentration of interconnected businesses suppliers intermediaries and associated institutions in a particular field or set of related industries.” Companies and organizations within the cluster “benefit from competitive advantages gained through proximity such as common labor pools exchange of specialized knowledge increased operational efficiencies and the use of shared public resources.”

In the US we’ve known for a long time that industry or innovation clusters are a key component of regional and national competitiveness. Some of the best known and most cited examples of regional innovation clusters are the technology clusters in Silicon Valley or Raleigh-Durham. Clusters may develop around all types of industries – music entertainment biotechnology manufacturing etc. The innovation clusters in our region include the technology and defense clusters around the Pentagon and other federal security agencies in Northern Virginia. Another well known cluster in our region exists around the life sciences and biotechnology extending from Bethesda to Gaithersburg in Montgomery County.

So how does DHS fit into the innovation cluster discussion? DHS is investing $3.6 billion dollars on a new headquarters facility at the Saint Elizabeths Campus in Anacostia and Congress Heights that is intended to be a model for integrating modern and historic facilities. The new DHS headquarters facility is expected to add 4.5 million square feet and bring 14000 jobs to some of the most economically distressed neighborhoods in our region.

The federal-local collaborative effort is supported by a US Economic Development Administration (EDA) regional innovation cluster grant to DC’s Office of Planning and Carnegie Mellon University that is intended to identify the city’s assets vital to the growth of the homeland security sector and conduct a planning and implementation strategy for innovation clusters focused on neighborhood revitalization. When a RIC implementation strategy is completed it should be integrated into parallel planning efforts. Other notable parallel planning efforts are being led by M-NCPPC and DCHCD in Anacostia Congress Heights and along four Metro Green Line stations in Prince George’s County. These planning efforts are being supported by two separate Sustainable Communities Challenge Grants from HUD designed to connect housing employment and economic development with transportation and other infrastructure improvements.

Some key facts mentioned at the event suggest a lot of promise for developing a new RIC in metro Washington based around the homeland security sector. DHS procures approximately $14 million worth of goods and services on an annual basis and unlike other federal agencies DHS has key staff responsible for directly transferring research into procurement. While the work is still in its early stages an important part of the work will include developing a strategy to make connections between the homeland security industry and existing residents living in Anacostia and Congress Heights. This could become a reality by linking vocational or other university programs focused on security to the availability of jobs or supporting industries. Universities across the country have been creating security-oriented degree programs including some local universities such as the University of Maryland. Participants at the NCPC event suggested that creating a security-oriented campus around one of Metro’s Green Line stations in DC or Prince George’s County might be one way to encourage more spinoff industries and link education residents and jobs.

The information presented more or less introduced the innovation cluster concept to the public and indentified the purpose and partners involved in the initiative. In many ways this collaborative effort is just beginning and there are certainly some major challenges remaining. However opportunities for dramatic transformation – both in terms of land use and opportunities for residents – don’t come around often and as Barry Johnson from EDA mentioned “out of challenge comes great opportunity.” If this work can be successful it will help address a number of regional challenges most notably the east/west growth and prosperity inequities that deal with everything from the health of residents to transportation efficiency. The regional innovation cluster concept could also transcend how we think about managing growth in our regional activity centers by better linking transportation and housing to new industry clusters. There will certainly be many opportunities to learn from this initiative and create new best practices that we could all use as we work together to advance the goals of Region Forward.

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