In 2008 economic geographer Richard Florida argued in his book, “Who’s Your City?”, that the economic units that matter in understanding economic growth and development aren’t nation states, or states, or even metropolitan statistical areas. They are mega-regions — conglomerations of metropolitan areas that are increasingly bound to one another through business interactions. By Florida’s reckoning, the mega-region biggest in the United States and the second largest in the world is the Boston-Washington corridor, which extends as far south as Richmond and Hampton Roads.
I long thought of the idea of a mega-region as a meaningless abstraction — an academic concoction rather than a reflection of economic reality. Metropolitan areas, which describe definable labor markets, are the primary units of economic development. But two news stories today have forced me to consider the possibility that MSAs are not immutable if the will exists to transcend them.
First, the Greater Washington Partnership, created last year, has issued a vision statement for “the Capital Region” encompassing the Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond metropolitan statistical regions. Admittedly, that’s a far cry from a megalopolis stretching all the way to New York and Boston, but it’s a bigger than anything that exists now in Virginia or Maryland. The economy of the Capital Region, proclaims the organization’s website, is the third-largest in the United States and seventh largest in the world.
States the website: “By acting together, and focusing on super-regional solutions, we can overcome jurisdictional impediments, achieve solutions at a scale that is equal to the problems we face, and deliver new sources and engines of growth to achieve economic well-being and prosperity.”
In the Richmond Times-Dispatch today, Michael Martz quotes Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell, one of 21 corporate CEOs on the partnership’s board, as saying, “The Greater Washington Partnership can make an impact on such pressing issues as transportation and talent, if those issues are addressed regionally.”
The overarching goal of the CEOs is to attract talent and promote innovation. A law of knowledge-economy economics, known as the agglomeration effect, is that larger regions exert greater gravitational pull on talent and corporate investment than smaller regions. The implication: Washington, Baltimore and Richmond are all stronger if they function as a single big region rather than three smaller regions. The incredible power of the agglomeration effect drives the growth of mega-regions, and it is the primary justification for building ties between neighboring regions.
Now, it’s one thing to proclaim a common identity, and another to achieve it. One can easily envision Washington and Baltimore as a single MSA because the entire swath of land between the two core cities has been filled in and developed. As a result, the labor markets of the two regions overlap to a significant degree. The same cannot be said of Washington and Richmond. But ties between Richmond and Washington, though tenuous, are emerging.
That brings me to the second news item. The Stephen Fuller Institute has just published a study, “Migration in the Washington Region: Trends between 2000 and 2015 and Characteristics of Recent Migrants.” The Washington region has a problem. While its population continues to grow as a result of foreign immigration and a surplus of births over deaths, the region has been leaking native-born citizens.
Between 2000 and 2015, Washington has experienced a net domestic migration to the Baltimore area of 77,000, and to the Hagerstown-Martinsburg area of 35,000. The number three and four recipients of Washington out-migration were Winchester (16,000) and Richmond (14,000). Charlottesville (4,000) was 15th largest recipient of domestic out-migrants. While downstate Virginia’s ties to the Washington region aren’t as strong as Maryland’s, they are still substantial. (Interestingly, Hampton Roads shipped a net 14,000 population to Washington over the same period, a pattern no doubt influenced by military ties between the two regions.)
When Washingtonians leave the metro area, by and large, they aren’t moving to New York, Boston or Philadelphia. Some are moving to retirement areas in Florida or the Eastern Shore, and a few to Charlotte and Raleigh. But the overwhelming majority are settling nearby — in the Baltimore, Hagerstown, Winchester and Richmond regions.
In other words, while the business CEOs speak grandiosely about pulling the three regions together, they aren’t trying to make something out of nothing. Below the radar screen, thousands of households making decisions of where to live and work implicitly recognize a commonality not reflected in government statistics.
If the political class buys in to the idea of a Baltimore-Washington-Richmond mega-region, the single-most important thing it can do is to knit the regions together with better transportation infrastructure. Saying this goes against my grain because I am suspicious of infrastructure mega-projects of all kinds, which invariably turn out to be boondoggles. But adopting the view of economic strategist rather than fiscal scold, I would say that top priorities would be: fixing the Washington heavy rail system, creating a higher-speed rail system from Richmond to Washington, and completing the extension of the Interstate 95 tolled express lanes to south of Fredericksburg. If we want to make a mega-region a reality, then we must invest in transportation infrastructure that enables people to move easily between the component regions.
One more thing. If Virginians want to become part of an economically competitive mega-region, they need to cast aside traditional resentments between Northern Virginia and the Rest of Virginia, NoVa and RoVa. Legislators must transcend their parochialism and prioritize projects of regional value, even if it means deferring local needs, in the expectation of everyone gaining something greater in return.