Top local business stories of 2021

Though the damage inflicted on the D.C. area’s economy by the pandemic continued in 2021, it was also a year of strong recovery. Commercial real estate has begun to shake off record vacancy rates; the leisure and hospitality industry welcomed back tourists; restaurants that have survived held their ground and new ones opened; the region attracted more investment, business expansion and corporate relocations, and there were some blockbuster mergers and acquisitions.

Here are a few of the top local business stories for 2021.

Commercial real estate

Even as D.C.’s office vacancy rate hit a record high this year, office leasing activity surpassed pre-pandemic levels by fall. And some notable development plans were announced.

Mazza Gallerie, the once-bustling Friendship Heights shopping venue, was purchased by developers with plans to convert it to residential. Howard University announced a major addition focused on research and housing; Navy Yard’s next expansion was announced; meanwhile, Phase 2 of the Southwest Waterfront’s The Wharf continued to sign new tenants.

Big Crystal City landlord JBG Smith announced plans to redevelop the Americana Hotel site on Richmond Highway and plans were unveiled to convert the historic Fairfax Embassy Row hotel to upscale senior living.



Companies in the D.C. region continued to attract investors in 2021, and in Montgomery County, public offerings and investments by venture capital firms hit a record.

One of the most significant single investments was $100 million landed by fast-growing Tysons-based, which paved the way for a hiring spree.

Fiscal Note, the technology data firm that owns CQ Roll Call, announced plans for an initial public offering. And Virginia retained its top ranking on CNBC’s annual list of Best States for Business.


Mergers and acquisitions

Microsoft completed one of the largest D.C.-area acquisitions in years in 2021, with the closing of its previously announced $7.5 billion all-cash buy of Rockville-based game developer ZeniMax, the parent company of Bethesda Softworks. And in another blockbuster deal, Maryland’s W.R. Grace agreed to be acquired by Standard Industries Holdings in a deal valued at $7 billion.

Credit reporting company TransUnion announced intentions to acquire Reston-based digital data company Neustar for $3.1 billion.

Other notable acquisitions included Ireland-based Horizon Therapeutics’ nearly $3.1 billion deal for Gaithersburg-based Viela Bio, and Nexstar Media Group’s $130 million acquisition of D.C.-based media company The Hill.



Even in a recovering economy, corporate philanthropy was healthy in the D.C. region in 2021.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made several large donations, including a record $200 million to the Smithsonian and $100 million to chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen.

VC investor Grant Verstandig donated $50 million to expand MedStar Georgetown Hospital. Netflix donated $5.4 million to Howard University’s newly established Chadwick Boseman scholarship fund.

And, though small by comparison, the impact of Planters Peanuts’ $130,000 donation to D.C.’s Hook Hall for its efforts to feed displaced restaurant workers was significant. D.C. law firms also set the bar high for 2021 after reporting record pro bono work for 2020.

Travel and leisure

Even though D.C.’s hotel bookings by business travelers remained weak throughout the year, tourists returned and so, slowly, did hotel employment.

The D.C. area’s largest hotel, Gaylord National Resort, finally reopened in the spring after 16 months of pandemic closure. Maryland’s casinos returned to full capacity earlier this year and have set several records for gaming revenue.

Air travel picked up noticeably throughout 2021, and airlines brought back flight schedules, including new routes.

The hospitality industry also lost a titan in 2021, when Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson died after a battle with cancer.

Restaurants (and beer!)

Even as the pandemic continued to shutter independently owned restaurants in the D.C. area, many continued to recover and even expand or open new locations. And several new locally-owned restaurants opened in 2021.

So did some major players.

And D.C.’s craft beer industry continued to grow in 2021, with a former Senate staffer opening City-State Brewing, a former race car driver opening Tap 99 and D.C. craft brewing pioneer DC Brau Brewing marking its 10th anniversary.


The D.C. area’s housing market remained historically strong in 2021. The for-sale market continued to set record-high prices and sales at record paces.

The pandemic also shifted buyer preference for larger suburban homes and, for the well-heeled, a move to the beach. Two Maryland counties ranked as tops for vacation homeownership this year.

For the rental market, developers continued to bring brand new communities to the market with increasingly over-the-top amenities, many of them along D.C.’s newly-developed waterfronts. Navy Yard was named among the most “apartment-crazed” markets in the country this year. And D.C. developers lead the nation for apartment conversion projects.


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Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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