The following op-ed article is written by Kate Roche, president & CEO of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.
Arlington currently faces trying economic conditions. Approximately 50 percent of the County’s tax base comes from business. Thus, these challenges affect Arlington as a whole and matter not just to businesses, but to all County residents.
The current office vacancy rate is 21.7%, over ten percent higher than the 15-year historical average. A ten percent improvement in occupancy rates (4.4 million sq. ft.) would represent $34 million annually in local tax revenues. No matter what issues are important to you as a citizen – great schools, social services, parks, art – a healthy business community is utterly essential to sustainably fund those initiatives.
As a community, we can’t keep operating the way we have been and expect to attract businesses. We have grown complacent that our strengths, our location, amazing workforce, and early adoption of transit-oriented development would entice companies to Arlington.
This may have been sufficient in the past, but Arlington faces rapidly growing competitiveness in the region as other localities copy our successful blueprint. To some degree we are a victim of our prior success, in the form of higher property costs and rental rates. Pressure on commercial real estate is accelerated by the dramatic shift in the way companies utilize space to maximize employees per square foot.
So what can Arlington do?
We can be proactive in attracting business and fostering a more welcoming culture for business:
- We are encouraged by the recent high-level appointments made by County Manager Barbara Donnellan, including Carol Mitten, Steven Cover, Victor Hoskins, and Shannon Flanagan-Watson. Arlington needs to ensure that the enthusiasm and willingness to work with businesses to find solutions at the highest levels percolates throughout the County staff.
- The recent funding of Arlington Economic Development by the County Board above what the County Manager specified in her base budget is another good sign. However, Arlington still remains significantly behind competing localities when it comes to funding the core components of economic development. More can be done.
- Long term planning efforts should incorporate more robust economic analysis so that decision makers can better understand the trade-offs when making their decisions. For example, the County is in the process of possibly reducing previously planned density from Rosslyn without studying the effects on our long term tax base.
- We must review and revamp both the site plan and permit processes for length, focus, and consistency. The site plan process is currently both overly lengthy and sometimes uncertain in terms of any type resolution. The permit process has gotten a bit better in recent years, but can still be frustratingly inconsistent.
- Better communication is crucial. This includes better communication by the County with businesses, but also better communication by the County about business to the community.
The onus for better communication lies not just with the County, but also with the business community itself.
This article is the first in an ongoing opinion column authored by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce to share that business perspective for the benefit of the Arlington community. We look forward to participating in helping steward Arlington to a vibrant and exciting future.