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The Right Note: A Company Town

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Mark KellyLast Thursday, incoming County Board Chair Mary Hynes likened Arlington to a “Company Town” in reference to the federal government and its influence over our local economy. While the federal government does not provide all of the jobs, own all of the housing or run all of the stores, the concept Hynes referred to is something many of us have said for some time.

The federal government and its impact on Arlington is a constant. Washington, D.C., is the seat of power for our nation. It not only spends our tax dollars — federal tax revenue in the past fiscal year set a new record — but it attracts all of the lobbying shops, trade associations and law firms seeking to influence the spending of that money. And, it draws millions of tourists to our area.

Without the federal government, the spending decisions our County Board would have been forced to make during the economic downturn would have been more like those in the rest of the country. Despite a slowdown in revenue and fewer square feet of office space being leased by the government, Arlington still saw spending climb each and every year.

Yet, you would often hear the Board take credit for Arlington’s relatively unaffected economic status because of its own sound planning or prudent management. They rarely, if ever, credited the federal government as the reason for our overall economic stability.

The County Board has long been able to ignore a real review of what policies would make Arlington a better place to do business because they could rely on the old adage that in real estate it is all about location, location, location. With a 21.4 percent office vacancy rate — a rate that has been steadily rising — it looks like the old way of doing things cannot continue. It is particularly important to Arlington taxpayers moving forward because such a high percentage of Arlington’s tax revenue currently comes from the commercial property tax.

Yes, the impacts of BRAC closures did not help. No, it made no sense to move thousands of workers away from a Metro stop in Crystal City out to the Mark Center in Alexandria. But, we cannot reverse that decision now, and the Board has known it was coming for years.

Arlington will continue to get its fair share of tenants, both federal and non-federal, but our ability to compete effectively is an open question. Arlington needs to hang an open for business sign on its door.

We should not spend months or even years simply talking about it on a task force that leads to one or two cosmetic changes. That means taking real action as quickly as possible to address the needs of the business community, from tax rates or tax incentive, to zoning revisions, to streamlining permitting, to site plan negotiations.

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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