At a forum last night, the candidates for Arlington County Board discussed ways to address the high amount of empty office space in Arlington while discussing how the county can be more attractive for businesses.
The eight candidates — six Democrats and two Independents — discussed transportation, commercial office vacancy and a diverse workforce during a candidate forum held by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and Rosslyn Business Improvement District.
The empty space largely comes from the shrinking footprint of the federal government, the candidates agreed.
Arlington has to realize that it cannot rely on the federal government as an employer like it once could, Democrat Bruce Wiljanen said. He suggested that the next major business sector may be high technology companies.
“I’m really encouraged by things happening in Crystal City right now,” Wiljanen said.
To fill the empty space, Arlington needs to do more to encourage businesses to move and stay here, the candidates said. It needs to be easier to open a business in Arlington, Democrats Andrew Schneider and Christian Dorsey said.
“I had a small business owner that said after a year of starting his business that he didn’t have to start — both he and his wife work full-time jobs downtown — that he would have started his business in Falls Church,” Schneider said.
Arlington needs to look at its regulatory processes and weed out what is unnecessary and harmful, Dorsey said. Having a business ombudsman is good — the county recently created the position — but it’s just the first step.
“These are the things, little as they may seem, that give a community the character of a place where business is welcome and it is a good place to do business,” said Dorsey.
Arlington also needs to foster a diverse workforce, candidates said.
Arlington needs to be attractive to both millennials and older workers, Democrat Katie Cristol said. This can be done through affordable housing, she said. Cristol, the youngest candidate in the race, lists affordable housing as one of her top issues.
A commitment to affordable housing is needed, Democrat Peter Fallon said. Arlington has a highly skilled workforce, but in order to keep it, there needs to be housing for Arlington’s employees.
With a more diverse workforce comes a need for more diverse businesses. One area Dorsey listed was through grocery stores. If neighborhoods are more diverse there is a need for standard grocery stores like Giant or Safeway but also for ethnic grocery stores, he said.
James Lander also encouraged a focus on millennials in the new workforce. Lander, a Democrat who is the chair of the Arlington School Board, emphasized the need to focus on invest in community amenities, specifically schools. He also said the county should invest more resources into helping small businesses.
“We can’t turn our back on investment,” Lander said.
The candidates agreed that transportation is one of Arlington’s best features, but also one that has area to improve.
“We have great people and we move them well,” Cristol said.
The Metro has allowed Arlington to be easily accessible and allowed it to be attractive for businesses. Many of the candidates argued that it is necessary for the County Board to get its seat back on the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority Board. With a seat on the board, County Board members could advocate for more investment in Metro infrastructure.
Congestion on Columbia Pike also needs to be addressed, candidates said. The candidates had different views about the need for the streetcar system that was canceled last year, but all agreed it was time to move forward.
“We need to wake up from our post streetcar hangover,” Dorsey said.
Fallon echoed Dorsey in saying that the County Board needs to start planning now for new transit options on Columbia Pike. Such plans need to be reasonable in scope, without requiring too much infrastructure, he said.
Cristol suggested enhanced bus service on Columbia Pike. The buses need to be able to move more fluidly, which could be accomplished with off vehicle payment system and/or doors at both ends, she said.
Wiljanen suggested that a mobile app for the bus may improve service. A real-time location app would help residents know when a bus was coming and, possibly, how many seats were on the bus.
Cristol also encouraged multimodal planning for the Pike, with a need for the ability to ride bicycles or walk down the Pike.
“It’s hard to bike the Pike right now,” she said.
Lander said a circulator-type bus may be the solution for Columbia Pike, as well as the other transportation challenges in Arlington. A circulator would also help people get to and from more modestly-priced housing with greater ease, which would help business, he said.
Independent Michael McMenamin said an enhanced bus system is needed for the Pike and the circulator may be an answer.
“There’s a way forward without the streetcar,” McMenamin said.
By making Columbia Pike more accessible, whether through a circulator, bus system or foot traffic, will make the Pike more attractive for business, Lander said.
Audrey Clement, who has previously run under the Green Party banner but is running this year as an independent, suggested that Arlington needs a more balanced mix of ground-floor businesses — more community-serving retail businesses but no more bars and restaurants.
“We have enough bars and restaurants but we must drive miles to other jurisdictions to purchase products such as battery stores, gardening stores and plant nurseries,” she said.
In lieu of the streetcar, Clement said the county should conduct a short-term marketing campaign to encourage bus ridership.
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