Peter’s Take: Arlington’s NSF Lesson

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Peter RousselotThe National Science Foundation (NSF) sent a memo to its employees last week telling them that NSF planned to move its headquarters from Arlington to Alexandria by the end of 2016.

Whether NSF HQ would stay in Arlington has been under active discussion for over four years. All of the important decision-makers have had more than enough time to carefully consider their interests and options. This move was not a hasty decision.

In that light, Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan made a poor decision publicly to question whether others had acted wisely. Ms. Donnellan issued a press statement that “we do not believe such a move would be in the best interests of the NSF, the federal government or the American taxpayer.”

In her initial anger in learning of the decision, Ms. Donnellan could be excused for harboring these sentiments, but she never should have issued a press statement to this effect. Arlington, as the losing bidder, has zero credibility to question whether other participants acted in their own self interests.

Also troubling was County Board member Jay Fisette’s statement that the federal government had pitted local jurisdictions against one another in a way he had not expected. His statement is troubling because it reflects a lack of understanding of the “new normal” competitive environment in which Arlington now finds itself.

With the opening of the Silver Line at the end of this year, commercial office space at Tysons will be Metro accessible — just like the new NSF office space in Alexandria will be. Combine that with the relative decline in the federal government’s investment in Northern Virginia, and the relative increase in the federal government’s cost consciousness, and we have the new normal to which Arlington must adapt.

The NSF situation illustrates all of these new competitive factors at work. NSF’s federal government landlord, the General Services Administration (GSA), deliberately pushed back the timetable for NSF’s move precisely to allow competition from the soon-to-be-Metro-accessible Tysons office space to compete against both Arlington and Alexandria for this highly-sought-after lease.

Rather than engaging in recriminations over whether Arlington took all reasonable steps to keep the NSF HQ in Arlington (County officials had plenty of time to decide how far it was reasonable to go), Arlington ought to concentrate instead on what it should be doing in the future to adapt to the new normal. Arlington should be focusing on applying cost-benefit analyses more rigorously to every major spending decision.

The incremental revenue that was available in the “old normal” isn’t going to be there in the new.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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