Ten years ago when USDA leased nearly all of the newly completed 380,000 square foot Patriots Plaza III at 355 E. St. SW in Washington D.C., it was good for only a couple of small items in the local real estate press.

USDA was just snapping up a hot address to house the Economic Research Service (ERS). Patriots Plaza III is a post 9/11 building that was offering security perks that the federal government was looking for back then. And it’s only a ten or twelve-minute walk from Patriot’s Plaza to Waterfront Center at 800 9th St. SW, where the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) has been housed for some time.

ERS is the federal statistical agency probably best known for the orange juice report in the movie Trading Places.  NIFA coordinates all federally funded agricultural research. Both of these current locations for USDA’s ERS and NiFA researchers are less than a 20-minute walk from their locations to USDA’ s Whitten Building headquarters on the Washington Mall.  But it that really necessary?

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has decided the USDA researchers should be relocated outside the “National Capital Region” and that ERS should report to the Chief Economist.

Real estate deals made inside the capitol usually don’t get much attention. It’s just something that occurs day in and day out. But talk about taking anything away from “the National Capital Region, ” and you are going to have hell to pay.

The NCR, as they call it, is the geographic area encompassing the District of Columbia and eleven local jurisdictions in the State of Maryland and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Kristin Boswell, a senior advisor to Secretary Perdue, last week defended the relocation plan for a House appropriations subcommittee. She expressed no doubt about ERS and NIFA being about to do quality work from their new and so far unknown new location. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does just fine from their location in Atlanta, Boswell said.

She also said Perdue did not make the relocation decision “rashly” and the site selection process involves employees. The plan to select a new location by early May.

Perdue is getting some of the regular Republican support and Democratic opposition you might expect. Beltway politicians, who happen to be mostly Democrats are mounting a defense to allowing USDA research to escape the NCR.

The 18,000 member American Statistical Association, based in Alexander, VA seems to be leading the Beltway Backlash against Perdue’s plans. There’s been no shortage of NCR-connected organizations and individuals who’ve gone on record against the move.

Not speaking much are the communities vying to become the home of these USDA research agencies. USDA hired Ernst & Young to shop the relocation to the nation. Serious economic development proposals almost never leak, so those are voices that likely won’t be heard from until its all over.

You are also not hearing from the research scientist who today is a graduate student who might be an applicant for a USDA job in two to four year complete with some student debt. They’ll find the NCR is a lovely place, except for the high cost of living, housing that is no longer affordable, crime and some terrible traffic.

It’s interesting that Perdue’s plan is really about whether USDA in the future would be better remaining in a D.C. office building or someplace else when the details about that other option remain unknown at this point.

The Land Grant institutions, especially the top state agricultural universities, do most of the nation’s food safety research from many bucolic locations. It will be interesting to see what options are laid on the table.

Change is hard, and relocation is difficult. Congress might take the coward’s way out and halt the process. But, letting it roll and having an honest discussion about future options would best for all.  But how often does that happen?

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