Even if the era of big government is over, the era of big federal construction projects is not.
By William Hoffman
Managers at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center hope the newly dedicated $800 million-plus complex will act as a stage for educating growing businesses about trade.
"The idea is that this is a national platform, but there's a distribution channel out through these other trade centers, and from the government's standpoint it's also out through their regional agencies," explains Brian F. Dacey, managing director for Trade Center Management Associates, the property-management company for the building's private-sector tenants. "There is a clear emphasis on small and medium-sized businesses, particularly in trade education, because the larger corporations tend to have resources and people in Washington to gather the information they need."
The Reagan Building will house headquarters for the Department of Commerce's Trade Information Center, "which is sort of the heart of the [federal government's] trade information network," Dacey says. Information can be accessed by walk-in, via the Internet, or at any of nearly 100 trade centers in cities across the United States. Public and private entities will teleconference events from the Reagan Building to local chambers and other trade-oriented groups, or over the Internet using high-speed audio/video software that can be accessed from a desktop computer.
Small-business groups appear skeptical about the impact of the new building and its outreach efforts. "It is important for small and growing businesses to look to foreign markets for new opportunities," acknowledges David K. Voight, director of the Small Business Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Yet while the Chamber has witnessed "dramatic" growth in the number of small companies engaged in trade, Voight notes that fewer than 20 percent of all small firms are involved. "A business that's based in Alliance, Neb., isn't going to be reaching out" to Washington-based trade educators, he adds. "It's really up to them to reach out to Alliance, Neb."
Dacey says Reagan Building planners approached small-business groups early on for insight about programs, and incorporated their suggestions during construction and program development. But Kristen Hogarth, spokesperson for the National Federation of Independent Business, says trade issues are "not on the radar screen" of the organization's 600,000 "mostly mom-and-pop" member firms. "We don't get involved in trade," Hogarth says; a recent NFIB poll of members found that less than 1 percent expressed an interest in the subject.
Originally conceived as a $400 million project under President Reagan, Congress appropriated $738 million for construction begun in 1991 under President Bush. Beth W. Newburger, associate administrator for the General Services Administration-the Reagan Building's landlord-says the project was completed for $816 million including "capitalized interest" (essentially, debt on the money borrowed to build it). At 3.1 million gross square feet, the structure is the second-largest federal building in the nation, after the Pentagon, which has 6.5 million square feet.
Billed as a "public-private partnership," the Reagan Building was paid for entirely by taxpayers. The "private" portion of the partnership is primarily commercial real estate, which will occupy about one-quarter of the available office space. Federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agency for International Development and the Customs Service, will take about 1.4 million square feet. Newburger and Dacey estimate that private- and public-sector tenants' rents-at $35 per square foot, about average for that area of Washington-will repay the construction cost in about 30 years.