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Montgomery County failed in its bid lure Amazon, the e-commerce giant that opted to build its second headquarters in Arlington, Va.
But top county officials have an alternate vision for the area surrounding the White Flint Metro station — a “life sciences hub” that exploits the presence of the close-by National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration.
“My goal is to produce a signature project that restates Montgomery County’s case as the leading life sciences center in the country,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) in an interview. “(White Flint) is sitting on the Metro. It’s right down from the Beltway, and there’s a ton of under-developed property there.”
Elrich has hired Tom Lewis, who served as chief of staff to former Maryland House Speakers Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany), to the newly created position of development ombudsman.
In June, Lewis retired from Johns Hopkins University and Medicine, where he spent 16 years as vice president for government and community affairs, a post in which he served as a conduit between the school, state and local government, the private sector, and communities surrounding the campus.
If confirmed by the county council, Lewis would have a similar job nurturing the White Flint project.
“Tom brings this unparalleled level of experience within the state working on these issues, working for one of the premiere global research organizations [and] NIH and FDA on joint projects,” said Chief Administrative Officer Richard S. Madaleno Jr. “Tom was part of the Hopkins team that worked on the Maryland bid for Amazon.”
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the agency that provides rail and bus service in the D.C. region, owns a large, undeveloped parcel adjacent to the White Flint station — and in the coming weeks the agency is expected to solicit requests from potential developers.
WMATA has engaged Jones Lang LaSalle, an internationally-known real estate consultant based in Chicago, to guide its pursuit of partners and a development vision.
Had Amazon chosen Montgomery County, the company was expected to build an 11 million-square-foot complex on several parcels in the North Bethesda area — including potentially where White Flint Mall long stood.
Elrich said he envisions a vibrant, walkable life sciences complex of comparable size, a development that would resemble Kendall Square, a mix of tech companies and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology buildings in Boston.
“It’s an enormous opportunity for place-making,” he said.
Although the bid for Amazon’s “HQ2” fell short, Lewis said he was drawn to the post because of the potential to use White Flint to “magnify” the existing biotech industry in Maryland.
“It’s exciting for lots of reasons,” he said. “And it fits in with some of the work I’ve done in the past.”
Long before the pandemic, Montgomery County has nurtured biotech companies that take advantage of research happening at nearby federal labs. Several county firms, including Novavax, played a role in the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
Elrich said he has been in communication with four universities about establishing an academic presence in White Flint. In June, the county, the University System of Maryland and Montgomery College signed a memorandum of understanding to expand on the region’s “leadership role in life and regulatory sciences education and innovation.”
“There’s no reason Montgomery County can’t — and shouldn’t — be the nation’s undisputed center for life and regulatory sciences,” said University of Maryland System Chancellor Jay A. Perman. “It has a thriving community of industry leaders; a strategic location near federal labs and agencies; and the full partnership of Montgomery College and the University System whose expertise in biotechnology and advanced computing is second-to-none.”
Elrich said he has spoken with top Maryland officials — including Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz and Transportation Secretary Greg Slater — about the need for state support.
“In my mind, it’s really important that the state play a role in some of the transportation needs in the (MD 355) corridor,” he said. “They had an amazing transportation investment for Amazon because they understood that — in order to make this work — you were going to have to deal with some of the transportation bottlenecks.”
If confirmed by the county council, Lewis’s new post will bring him into regular contact with Yaakov “Jake” Weissmann, another former chief of staff in Annapolis.
Weissmann, who served under Senate Presidents Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), is an assistant chief administrative officer, overseeing “economic development and business advancement activities.”
Melanie Wenger, Montgomery County’s longtime director of Intergovernmental Affairs, also served as Miller’s chief of staff in Annapolis.