The Arlington County Board has announced a series of Big Idea roundtables which are supposed to spark conversations “beyond a specific project or proposal to big-picture conversations about our County’s future.” Even more specifically, the conversation is supposed to center on the question “How should Arlington grow?”
The first big idea could be that county leaders start talking less and doing more. Every new County Board Chair talks about community engagement. Often, it is in response to pushback the Board receives from the community on unpopular decisions. But honestly, would more talking have substantively changed any of the outcomes?
Certainly, these discussions will produce some interesting dialogue. But to keep up in an increasingly fast-paced world with broadband Internet and nearing 5G wireless systems, the discussion should point the Board toward action and results.
So what is the big idea? Make Arlington one of the best places in America to do business.
Arlington has one big advantage over many communities. The federal government provides an underlying economic base that is unlikely to go away any time soon. It is not just the federal employees, but the trade associations, lobbyists, lawyers and tourists who bring money from all over the U.S. to Arlington.
Our county also boasts an airport, a highly educated workforce and a good school system. Yet, our commercial vacancy rate remains high.
Businesses do take community factors like schools and location advantages into consideration, but they are ultimately driven by the bottom line. Arlington has been offering incentive packages to big employers, but considering the overall tax treatment and regulatory environment would matter more to the economy as a whole.
The Board can create an action plan that ensures our zoning ordinance and permitting processes results in more efficient interactions with county staff and makes it a priority to ensure costs associated with housing construction are more affordable.
The Board should develop a transportation plan that doesn’t increase traffic congestion. If your plan creates more idling, longer commutes and increases in traffic cutting through neighborhoods, you are not making things better, just creating a different set of problems.
The next capital plan should pay for more projects as we go and reduce our ratio of debt service to spending. Just because we can borrow up to 10 percent to keep the highest bond rating does not mean that we should. If we are growing, we should leave ourselves maximum flexibility to address future needs.
Creating the most favorable business environment possible would provide more jobs at higher wages. And it would ensure we are even less dependent on the federal government for our economy.