Economic-development leaders upbeat despite rising headwinds | news/arlington


Inter-jurisdictional cooperation is bolstering regional economic-development efforts, but several challenges – including a dysfunctional Metrorail system and shortages of housing and workers – still must be overcome, area officials said May 17 at the Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce Economic Forum.

While ribbing each other frequently, panelists said working together has improved the region’s prospects.

“We really do buy into ‘What’s good for one of us is good for all of us,’” said Telly Tucker of Arlington Economic Development. “We call it ‘co-oper-a-tition.’”

David Kelley, director of national business investment for the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, concurred.

“We’re stronger together than we are divided,” Kelley said.

Buddy Rizer, executive director of the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, said regional relationships have been “tremendous.”

“Each of us brings something different to the table,” Rizer said.

The panelists told how their jurisdictions handled stresses from the recent pandemic. Many of Arlington’s employers are federal agencies and contractors, and while those entities were able to adapt swiftly during the pandemic’s changed work environment, street-level businesses that catered to those workers suffered, Tucker said.

Businesses that performed better during the crisis tended to have a strong online presence, he said, adding that e-commerce initiatives have “unlocked a whole new market of consumers and customers.”

Fairfax County has been nurturing business development in Reston, the Route 1 corridor and Springfield and has been holding “virtual” job fairs and a career fair with Fort Belvoir, a major employer, Kelley said.

Loudoun County began restructuring its economy 15 years ago during the 2007-08 recession, Rizer said. Seeking to shift from overreliance on residential property taxes, county officials focused on landing data centers. Loudoun and Prince William counties now have the world’s largest concentration of such facilities, he said.

Prince William has land available for industrial uses and is recruiting life-science companies and e-commerce distributors as well as data centers, said Christina Winn, executive director of the Prince William County Department of Economic Development.

“Our goal is really to become an economic powerhouse,” she said.

Now that the home and workplace became heavily commingled in the pandemic, Prince William officials are cultivating more community spaces where the public can relax and socialize, Winn said.

Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said strong neighborhoods accounted for much of the city’s economic resiliency during the pandemic crisis. The decision by Amazon to place its second headquarters in Crystal City also has lifted the region’s economic fortunes, she said.

But upward pressure on housing costs is the “biggest threat in this region” and needs to be alleviated, Landrum said.

Because of the housing shortage and drastic alterations in the office market during the work-from-home pandemic, several area jurisdictions are exploring the possibility of converting vacant commercial buildings into housing.

“We have office buildings that frankly will never be used again,” Landrum said.

Fairfax County officials are among those seeking such conversions and the closed Sheraton Premiere hotel in Tysons likely will be one such site, Kelley said.

Federal tax credits are available for commercial-to-residential conversions, said Tucker, who added that Arlington County recently approved a $150 million loan to preserve some affordable housing.

Peggy Fox of Dominion Energy moderated the program, which was held at the Fairview Park Marriott in the Falls Church area.

Several panelists expressed exasperation at ongoing problems with the Metrorail system and delayed implementation of the Silver Line’s second phase between Reston and eastern Loudoun County.

“We’re hopeful the Metro system can get its act together, but we’re all committed to it,” Landrum said.

Rizer was concerned about ongoing economic turbulence, including high inflation, and said many businesses worked on slim margins that made it difficult to adjust to higher costs and upward pressure on wages. “I have a lot of worries about the economy now,” he said.

Some sectors of the economy – such as the restaurant industry – have struggled to hire employees in recent years, but other fields are poised to take off jobs-wise, panelists said.

Several major health-care facilities, including a new Inova Alexandria Hospital at the defunct Landmark Mall site, will offer thousands of jobs, Landrum said. Senior-living facilities also are beginning to pop up everywhere, she added.

[Sun Gazette Newspapers provides content to, but otherwise is unaffiliated with, InsideNoVa or Rappahannock Media LLC.]



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