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Progressive Voice: Moving Arlington Toward an Innovation Economy

Sally DuranProgressive 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 the author’s organization or of ARLnow.com.

Economic development is the art of attracting the right business to make a prosperous and vibrant community for residents, businesses and visitors to enjoy. Arlington is a unique place where business and residents have together created Arlington’s success and economic prosperity.

We’ve achieved an enviable and unique position in having a 50 percent/50 percent split in the residential/commercial share of property taxes. In some of our neighboring jurisdictions, for example, there’s a 70/30 split in the share of property taxes. That 50/50 split means commercial property taxes reduce the tax burden on residents; help fund schools, parks and infrastructure; and allow Arlington to maintain its triple-A bond rating.

What’s more, those commercial property owners and businesses pay business taxes and contribute into special funds for affordable housing, arts, sidewalks, landscaping, street lights and more.

Economic development is a topic that is not without its share of controversy in Arlington. As many of you know, our County is facing an unprecedented office vacancy rate that exceeds 20 percent. The team at Arlington Economic Development is diligently working to reduce that rate.

Two years ago, Arlington’s Economic Development Commission (EDC) established a competitiveness task force to look at Arlington’s position in the marketplace. That task force determined that Arlington’s public investment in Metro over the past three decades created distinct competitive advantages for Arlington’s economy and transformed Arlington into one of the most successful and “intelligent” communities in the country.

In the past, our location next to Washington, DC, lower business tax rates, public transportation and infrastructure made Arlington the low cost alternative and a key location for federal agencies, federal contractors and businesses. However, it’s a new time. Moving forward, those federal agencies are just one driver of Arlington’s economy, and we have more competition for those office rents.

In response, Arlington is in the process of diversifying its businesses so our residents can continue to enjoy the benefits that come from that 50/50 split in residential/commercial property taxes. We are investing in smart “mixed-use” planning and transportation for our urban villages and revitalizing shopping areas. We made changes at the County level too – with innovation-friendly, less costly processes and faster response times to attract and retain businesses.

Arlington has always been an early adapter, and the EDC recognized the need to focus on an “Innovation Economy” for the future. We recently completed a study on the Future of the Arlington Office Market, and as a result, we’re exploring creative and flexible approaches to using commercial spaces that will make Arlington’s commercial space more attractive and affordable to small businesses, start-ups and emerging new economy businesses.

We’re also fostering partnerships between business, government and universities to make Arlington a desirable destination for collaboration. And, we’re providing needed incentives and technology infrastructure improvements to support “mom and pop” storefronts, high-tech startups and solo entrepreneurs — all measures that are helping Arlington stay competitive in this rapidly changing marketplace.

Arlington values being an unique community that combines small town charm of walkable streets,  great schools, restaurants and shopping with the big city amenities, such as Metro, world-class hotels, universities and arts.

Right now, we’re in the midst of a transition – one that requires us to compete in the business marketplace and global economy of the future. It’s not an easy process, nor is it a short-term one. It will take everyone, including businesses and residents working together with the county, to find fair solutions that will improve the efficiency of Arlington’s development processes and meet these new challenges while still maintaining our shared community values.

Sally Duran is Chair of the Arlington Economic Development Commission. She is a health insurance policy consultant with SJD Associates.

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