Are trade groups the secret to bringing the DC region together?

One of the hallmarks of the D.C. business community is the importance of trade groups. D.C. is generally the center of trade associations around the United States, and this phenomenon can hold a fantastic opportunity when it comes to issues of regional coordination and economic development. We’re now going to talk Harry Klaff, managing director at JLL and leader of the technology practice group there. Klaff has been very involved in helping the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce develop its role here in the region. They now have over 600 members, they represent over 500,000 employees, and are a large part of the MetroNow Coalition, which has helped secure funding for the D.C. Metro from three jurisdictions.

ABERMAN: Harry, first of all, thanks for joining us.

KLAFF: Thank you having me.

ABERMAN: You’ve been part of this region for a while, you’ve really spent a lot of time building this region up as a real estate guy, and helping people find space here, but I don’t really want to talk about that today, other than giving you props for it. How did you come to be part of trying to develop the regional ecosystem, as you have been over the last couple of years?

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KLAFF: We’ve been part of various trade groups in northern Virginia, Metro Washington area, for quite some time, and I’ve been active with the Chamber, which used to be known as the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce until two years ago. We listened to our membership base as board members, and our membership basically said, we need to attack and address the biggest issues that face our region, and we think that to do that, we need to have a bigger mission. So, the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce became the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce a couple years ago, and we’re just hitting our stride right now.

We have gotten to a place where we’ve been able to have a seat at the table with the appropriate groups, and appropriate people, to make real change happen. You mentioned the MetroNow Coalition. We were part of the MetroNow Coalition, and in fact, we took a leadership position on behalf of the Commonwealth with regard to Metro and Metro funding for this budget cycle. We’re really pleased with the result that was achieved in enrichment. We’re also very pleased that we set the tone for the other jurisdictions within MetroNow, specifically Maryland and the District.

ABERMAN: Now that we’re looking back at it, and we have Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. governments all stepping up to finance their portion of the 500 million dollar a year ask, I cannot think of another instance where the business community has come together in this way. Why do you think that this particular moment in time did it? Is this a unique situation where Metro is just so bad in so many people’s minds, and with Amazon talking about coming here, that it rallied people? Or do you think that this is a template for a new type of regional behavior here?

KLAFF: It was a unique time. It was a combination of desperate times requiring desperate measures, and I think that this was one of those situations where we basically knew that we had to do something with Metro. There’s a number we needed to hit. Failing that, Metro would fail. So, the stakes were significant with regard to that. They still are, and we’re out of the woods yet as you know, but we’re on the right path.

The combination of that, and the allure of HQ2, is obviously a significant component. We want to make sure that anyone, whether it’s Amazon or another party considering our metropolitan area, knows that we can we can tackle big problems as a region. So, this is a great template. I believe that the MetroNow Coalition template could be a template in addressing other things going down the road.

ABERMAN: I have had people tell me that one of the biggest problems in our region is that we have too many trade associations or groups that all claim to speak for the region, and compete for mindshare. You’ve got the northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, your organization, or the Northern Virginia Technology Council, the High Tech Council of Maryland, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and many others. How do you respond to that?

KLAFF: There are a lot of trade associations in the Capitol region. There’s no question about that. They basically speak for a very wide, diverse constituency. We believe that there’s a place for all of them. There’s an opportunity to connect based on whatever that might be. It might be industry type, or it might be a wide variety of other things, but we believe that there needs to be another convener of these these groups, wrapped around big missions, that convene organizations together to tackle certain big problems, and also pursue great opportunities.

Also, I think there has to be an essential advocacy component to that. So, we believe that the Chambers—chambers are commerce typically are conveners and advocates, it’s what they do best. So we believe we’re in a great position to convene many of these organizations around a central cause.

ABERMAN: A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece in The Post about my frustration, that I was just tired people pinging me online, asking to meet so they can just network work with me. I’m very much down on social networking. What’s the value of a chamber of commerce, or other groups, in today’s world?

KLAFF: I think, again, it’s about addressing the problems and the risks associated with a certain community. We have a decent number of those. We’ve got transportation, infrastructure, workforce issues, we have economic diversity. We believe that there has to be a catalyst for change, and chambers of commerce can do that by getting people together to discuss those things.

ABERMAN: What I thought you were going to say is that the value of these networks is that there’s an opportunity to get to know somebody, and work with them face-to-face, and develop a relationship.

KLAFF: I think that’s part of it. But that’s a part of any trade association, any group that you would be would be a member of. That’s clearly a great benefit of being a member of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, or any other chamber of commerce, or the Northern Virginia Technology Council. I think that there’s an opportunity to meet people face-to-face, to talk about business opportunities.

We believe that’s a critical component to what we do, but we also need a forum to talk about the things that are affecting us as a community, and how we address those in the best way. Our view is that chambers of commerce tend to be grassroots. So, consequently, we know that we have the wind in our sails of our community when we’re approaching a certain situation, like Metro for instance.

ABERMAN: MetroNow Coalition was a great example of how we can come together, like the Greater Washington Partnership, the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, and others. If you were in charge, Harry, and you could exercise your free will, what would you have the region do? What are the two or three projects you think the region should come together on?

KLAFF: I think that the biggest issues we deal with are the issues that are identified by the 2030 Group, actually. I think that it’s economic diversity, and it’s workforce issues. Now, workforce has numerous subsets, like affordable housing components, that impact workforce education, especially K-12, that has an impact on workforce. But all those things. It’s two general categories, I would say it’s economic diversity and workforce.

ABERMAN: That was Harry Klaff, managing director at JLL. Harry, thanks for joining us.

KLAFF: It’s a pleasure.