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“You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store”
— Classic Country – “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford
The Company Town
What do you do if you live in a company town and the company goes out of business or downsizes? This might seem like a hypothetical question but it’s really not, because you, me and everybody we know in Loudoun County and Northern Virginia basically lives in a company town. And the company isn’t doing very well at the moment.
Okay, to be fair, it’s not a company town in the classic sense of the all stores and housing being owned by one company that is the only employer in the area. But it is a company town in the sense that one company exerts an outsized influence on our economy. The name of that company, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the FEDERAL government. Yeah, yeah, I know the federal government isn’t a company. It certainly isn’t run like a company – if it was run like a company it probably wouldn’t waste so much of my money every year and the President would be getting a ton more money instead of the miserly $400,000 in salary he gets now – but I digress.
The point is, that the federal government dominates our regional economy. I’m betting you know someone who either works for the feds, works for someone who provides good and services to the feds; or works for someone trying to influence the feds. In short, you can’t swing a stick in Northern Virginia without impacting the feds in some way.
To put some numbers on the problem (who doesn’t love numbers), according to the experts over at George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, the federal government accounts for roughly 40% of our region’s Gross Regional Product (GRP). That’s HUGE. It’s also great for our economy when the federal government is just printing money and spending it hand over fist (global war on terror/shovel-ready project anyone?). Unfortunately, it’s not so great when that printing press get turned off like it’s been the last few years.
Going back to our friends at George Mason, according to them, among the 15 largest employment metropolitan areas in the country, the Washington Metropolitan Area had the lowest growth rate between 2012 and 2013. In fact, it was the only one in which GRP actually declined. To put some perspective on that, Detroit, the poster-child for urban decay and municipal bankruptcy, grew three times as fast between 2012 and 2013 as we did. Oh federal government what have you wrought?
Our soul isn’t doomed to damnation quite yet. We have time for redemption. The federal government probably isn’t going to go away but it faces massive debt and deficit issues that will hamstring its spending habits for years if not decades. So, the path to salvation runs through the private sector. It’s up to us as business owners to step up and drive our economy forward. We have a very talented, highly-educated workforce. We have a major international airport in our backyard. We have a vibrant rural economy. And we have high-technology and biotechnology hubs. If we can put all the pieces together, I feel pretty confident that when Saint Peter does call our name, we’ll be good to go.
Brian Fault is the Government Affairs Manager at the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. He enjoys reading every newspaper and policy blog he can find, celebrating St. Patrick’s day all year long, as well as searching high and low for the best Polish sausage there is. (Keilbasa, in Rockville, MD if you’re wondering)