Center for Regional Analysis: Creating the Economic Data that Drives D.C.’s Economy

By Buzz McClain

Terry Clower, director of the Schar School’s Center for Regional Analysis

The Center for Regional Analysis was created by necessity.

In the early 1990s, the government and business leadership of the National Capital Region needed more and better data measuring the trends in demographics, employment, housing, transportation, and other factors impacting the local economy in the public and private sectors. They also needed estimates as to possible international and national influences on economic wellbeing of the 24 jurisdictions that make up the Washington region.

As it happened, George Mason University was building its Institute of Public Policy, with a handful of professors working out of modest temporary trailers on the Fairfax City campus. The Institute’s mandate was to create degree programs—the first PhDs were awarded in 1992—and “to build a research and outreach program to the external environment, especially for the national capital region and beyond,” said Roger Stough.

Stough and Kingsley E. Haynes, who would become dean of the School of Public Policy (formerly the Institute of Public Policy and now the Schar School), established the Center for Regional Analysis in 1991, with the initial goal of creating an Economic Outlook Conference to serve as a forum for reporting findings.

Among other news delivered at the first CRA conference in January 1993 was a surprising finding: A study commissioned by the Washington Metropolitan Board of Trade showed the Washington region’s workforce in technology had possibly even more workers than that of Silicon Valley. The report shattered the myth that Washington was a “government town,” opening doors, as well as minds, as to the economic culture of the region.

“The early work established the CRA as an organization that provided useful information about the evolving economy of the region and the forecast of changes that were unfolding,” said Stough, the first director of the CRA and the eventual University Professor and Dean for Research at the Schar School of Policy and Government.

To deepen this role, Stough added, the CRA developed a “spatial econometric input-output model” that enabled not only making a highly reliable forecasts of the regional economy of over a five-to-seven-year period, it also enabled banking and finance leaders, among others, to form their own opinions about changes in the economy.

CRA staff programmed those views into the model “so that a different forecast based on the bankers’ view could be projected along with the base forecast,” he said. “This enabled the banking sector leaders to consider the impact their view may have not only on the economy in general but on different sectors and different parts of the National Capital Region.”

The insights were profound, and the work solidified the incipient CRA’s reputation for translating theory and methods to help local officials understand their economy and to enhance planning its maintenance and future.

In 1994, the Institute hired a 25-year veteran professor from George Washington University as a professor of public policy and regional development. Stephen S. Fuller served as director of the PhD program in public policy; in 2002 he was named the second director of the CRA as Stough focused on developing the newly branded School of Public Policy.

Fuller, who had developed his own forecasting model, expanded the annual economic forecast conference from an academic exercise for a few dozen into a highly anticipated multi-speaker event for some 600 regional business leaders. He also established weekly reports that calculated not just raw economic data but also how public policy, both local and national, was hindering or aiding the economy. Findings on immigration, the aging population, and significantly, federal sequestration put Fuller and the Center in the forefront of breaking news.

The Center moved to the School of Public Policy’s new home in Arlington, Va., in 2010, bringing the Center within minutes of the media and policy makers in nearby Washington.

In August of 2015, Terry L. Clower was appointed as the third director of the CRA while Fuller became senior advisor and director of special projects. Clower, who had been director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas, brought extensive experience in economic development and transportation and broadened the center’s traditional research areas beyond the region’s traditional boundaries.

Stough retired from the Schar School in 2017 and is now CEO of RR&S Consulting Group, a global regional economic development organization working in China, India, Korea, Europe, and Latin America.

Since January 2017, Fuller has been director of the Stephen S. Fuller Institute at the Schar School, focusing on short- and long-term policy options for Washington-area decisionmakers.

Under Clower’s direction, the Center for Regional Analysis has expanded its scope to include issues of importance across the Commonwealth of Virginia, reflecting the growing influence of George Mason University as the state’s largest public research university.

In addition, the CRA team increasingly engages with international scholars and research institutions to advance its mission beyond the region and into the globalized economy. The Center remains an important and reliable fixture in the economic world of Washington—and beyond.