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The Willard stage. (Lydia DePillis)

You’ve got to hand it to Bisnow, the sprawling business newsletter company that makes money off its industry events: It’s got a way of pairing panelists. Case in point: Yesterday’s packed event at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, headlined by Mayor Vince Gray in conversation by his former rival’s right-hand man, Neil Albert.

The chat was sadly brief, and Albert—now safely ensconced in the private sector—threw mostly softballs (“How would you describe your vision for economic development?” he led off). But there were some interesting exchanges, for those development types seeking clues about where the new administration would start throwing its weight.

At one point, Albert noted that when he was the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development at the outset of Adrian Fenty‘s administration, they also began an inventory of capital projects, just like Victor Hoskins is now—but were pressured by developers to just hit the gas. Albert wanted to know how Gray was balancing his deliberative instincts with the need to get things going. 

Gray’s answer set out the priorities that Hoskins has been saying would come: In addition to capturing local investment around the St. Elizabeths project, the other big public project requiring public investment he sees as ready to move is Walter Reed. Gray said he’s been meeting with Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, and sees the old Army campus as a great “opportunity to link us to the region,” especially as the streetcar makes its way north. That may or may not be bad news for the other pieces of land on the District’s plate, Hill East/Reservation 13 and McMillan. But the developers working on those projects probably would have liked them to get some mayoral airtime as well.

The other message Gray had for the people who build things in this city: I understand that it’s hard to find District residents for your construction projects. “In some instances, that’s justified,” he said, noting that local workers often just don’t have the necessary skills to work on a construction site. “That is why we’ve underscored the importance of education,” he continued. “Ultimately, that will be the path out of the dilemma that we’ve found ourselves in.”

He later made mention of the 22 letters that had been sent out to contractors who hadn’t filled their hiring quotas for District residents. “There is a commitment when you sign on. We’re serious about that,” he said. “But, we also believe that while you have to have the stick in hand, you also have to have the carrot.”

I still don’t understand this. Last week, the AFL-CIO’s Kathleen McKirchey pointed out to me that getting work from the District itself is the carrot—why should contractors get doubly rewarded for complying with the requirements that come with that? “There’s a problem in paying contractors to take people,” she noted. Either make it a requirement, or don’t.