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Progressive Voice: The Link Between Schools, Services and the Economy

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Garrett McGuireArlington residents are focused on key community priorities — school capacity and instructional needs, housing affordability, Metro upgrades, community facilities, open space, and other areas that depend upon public funding.

However, as a recent Washington Post article highlighted, we face another threat to our community that has received less attention: a high (and rising) commercial vacancy rate. The recently launched Community Facilities Study Group was briefed last month on the current state of Arlington’s economy and the picture is sobering.

With one-quarter of the county’s 40 million square feet of office space vacant, Arlington is faced with reduced commercial property taxes at a time when the demand for county services continues to rise.

Our ability to fund county services at existing or enhanced levels requires a healthy local economy.

Arlington is the envy of many area localities because we have a balanced 50-50 tax split between commercial real estate and homeowner property taxes. However, rising commercial vacancy rates will slow commercial real estate tax receipts and homeowners could either pay more to cover the lost revenue — or services will have to be reduced.

Those are our real options. Even if the county and school budgets were scoured for every inefficiency, potential staff reduction, or unnecessary project or program, we would still face either increased residential taxes or service reductions if Arlington is not able to attract more commercial and government tenants.

Additionally, with school spending already a significant portion of Arlington’s budget, and school enrollment growing at nearly 5 percent a year, funding for schools could be in jeopardy at a critically important time if we are not competitive for major tenants with the District, Tysons, Alexandria, and outer suburbs.

Any County Board candidate (Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green, Reform, Bull Moose etc…) should have a strong economic development plan. Without a thriving business community that provides jobs, pays wages and drives county revenue, we will not be able to solve and fund our core priorities, and promote our core values.

The Arlington Economic Development (AED) team, under new leadership, is becoming more aggressive about marketing our community’s assets. This month, AED attended SXSW in Austin, Texas, to pitch companies on Arlington. We need our local government — and our elected officials — to continue developing innovative marketing techniques and have a clear understanding of what resources are needed to attract and keep major tenants.

Because Arlington’s success has relied upon federal government spending, we need a new push toward a more diversified local economy.

In addition to supporting the growth of local startups, we must focus on companies that are diverse in scope and can withstand reduced government spending — like Marriott, which happens to be looking for a new Metro-accessible office location.

We have a governor who is focused on, and has thrived during, his first year attracting businesses to every region of the Commonwealth. His energy and enthusiasm can be an added tool to recruiting world-class employers to fill Arlington’s empty office buildings. Just last week, the governor announced nearly 600 new jobs in Fairfax County with the expansion of Navy Federal Credit Union’s offices.

Arlington has strengths to offer potential employers due, in part, to successful county policies. We enjoy many recruiting advantages like great schools, transit options, a highly educated workforce, and vibrant, livable communities formed by the backbone of Arlington: single family neighborhoods. All of these positive attributes are shaped by our local economy and commercial real estate tax revenue, the very thing we must work harder to save.

If we want to move forward with new school construction, family-friendly parks, a properly staffed police department, and a safety net for those less fortunate, we must continue to encourage the presence of a strong and civic-minded business community.

The next county manager and the County Board members who will begin serving in January 2015 have the opportunity to significantly shape the future of Arlington. They can take its successes to a new level by fostering the redevelopment of buildings to meet the needs of today’s companies and tenants and fill the new buildings that will be the source of future revenues.

In an upcoming column, we’ll explore some concrete ideas to move our county economy forward.

Garrett McGuire lives in Pentagon City and is a member of the Arlington County Transportation Commission and on the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s steering committee.

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