Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appeared pleased by the response by 136 localities and stakeholders who offered to be the host site for his controversial plan to move two key research units outside of Washington, D.C.
The “expressions of interest” for being landlord to 700 employees of USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture poured in from 35 states, he announced on Monday.
“The interest from across the country has been overwhelming as localities, universities, private entities, and elected officials realize the potential for their communities [to] become the new home for these two agencies,” Perdue said. “It is an old saying that not all wisdom resides in Washington, D.C., but it is gratifying to see so many folks step forward wanting to prove that to be the case.”
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Having extended the window for applications from August to Oct. 15, the department plans to work with Ernst & Young to examine the proposals from the competition and select new locations by January. The two offices might be located together or separately, with an undetermined number of employees remaining in Washington.
Critics of the move include many Washington-area-based employees as well as organizations such as the American Statistical Association. They argue that a presence in the nation’s capital facilitates interagency communication and express skepticism toward Perdue’s claim that there are recruitment advantages in rural areas. Some critics also worry that the objectivity of economic research could be compromised if it is controlled by the Office of the Secretary.
But on Monday Perdue’s team reiterated its case. “The move will place important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from the Washington, D.C. area,” a press release said. “Additionally, taxpayers will realize significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets. Finally, the plan will improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.”
Perdue acknowledged that 91 percent of USDA’s 108,000 employees already work outside the D.C. region.
The expressions of interest came from educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, state development agencies, county development agencies, municipalities and for-profit entities, the department noted. “USDA has also received letters of support from a number of governors, members of Congress, farm-related organizations, and state and local officials.”
Some of the bids came from entities within commuting distance of downtown Washington. They include the economic development departments for Montgomery County, Md.; Loudoun County, Va.; and Prince William County, Va., all of which contain farmland. A private corporation called NewTower Trust Co., working with a real estate services firm called Bentall Kennedy, offered office space in Laurel, Md., also a close-in suburb with a MARC commuter train line to the D.C. Metro.
None of these entities agreed to speak to Government Executive, citing the need for silence while the competition process continues.
Other offers came from as far away as California, Washington state and Utah.
Most agency searches for new office space are handled by the General Services Administration. Former GSA Administrator Jim Williams said Agriculture’s approach is “unusual, given that USDA and GSA have an excellent relationship with their Centers of Excellence.”
The following chart shows the locations that expressed interest in the USDA offices: