By Laura Saul Edwards
Arlington is rightfully proud to have attracted Amazon — one of the world’s largest companies — to our community.
Despite the Amazon hoopla and hubbub, what I interact with every day is more the lifeblood of Arlington — its small businesses. At a time when there is so much attention focused on Amazon, making sure that these smaller enterprises get an equal opportunity and visibility in Arlington’s economic scene is a core progressive value, rooted in fairness and diversification. This would enhance opportunities for small businesses to thrive alongside the big businesses located in Arlington.
For example, on a typical day, I walk my dog down the street to Livin’ the Pie Life where I read the newspaper and do email while enjoying a cup of coffee and a fresh scone. My son’s math tutor, a local middle-school teacher, arrives at our house for their weekly sessions while I am teaching piano lessons in my music studio. On other days, I might attend informal meetings or purchase gifts at Trade Roots in Westover, brunch with friends at Cafe Sazon on Columbia Pike, or snack on tasty treats sold by food truck vendors at events such as the Nauck “Feel the Heritage” festival.
Small businesses are the unifying element in all of these Arlington experiences — and so blessedly untypical from the national chain lookalikes.
Commissioner of Revenue Ingrid H. Morroy recently noted that approximately 8,500 small businesses have set up shop in Arlington. Wendy MacCallum and Heather Sheire (Livin’ the Pie Life), Lisa Ostroff (Trade Roots), and Karen Bate (KB Concepts P.R. and also co-founder of Awesome Women Entrepreneurs — AWE, a networking group of 150 women-owned Arlington businesses) are among the small business owners that Morroy referred to.
These entrepreneurs are doing something they love. They concur they “wouldn’t consider running a business anywhere else!” They agree the county employees they interact with are pleasant, helpful and “go the extra mile” to help them. They also said the business ombudsman assists small businesses with navigating inter-governmental processes, the workshops from Arlington Economic Development’s BizLaunch network are useful and the move to a one-stop capability for filing business paperwork and making payments digitally is helping reduce their administrative burden.
However, as noted by other small business owners, they lack the financial and staffing resources of their larger counterparts for navigating requirements and challenging government decisions affecting their daily operations. They made a heartfelt plea for Arlington government to consider adjusting requirements, fees and timetables accordingly.
Another recurring complaint was that small business people were told by one county staffer to do a task to only be told by another staffer that it either wasn’t necessary or else must be re-done differently. In the case of small businesses, these episodes usually have an outsized impact on their profits and operations.
At this turning point in Arlington’s development, there are meaningful ways in which county government can equitably support small business.
First, ensure county staff are “operating from the same play book” to avoid delivering conflicting advice or imposing unnecessary requirements on small businesses.
Second, increase the threshold for filing a business license tax return to $100,000 per year, as promoted by Morroy. Raising the threshold would cost the county approximately $200,000 annually in lost revenue. But, given the county’s $1 billion-plus budget, this loss is justified and about 6,000 businesses — about 75 percent of Arlington’s small businesses — would be relieved of this paperwork. Plus, Commissioner’s Office staff would have more time for conducting tax audits of larger companies, an effort that could conceivably recoup enough money to exceed the revenue lost.
Third, establish county-funded grants to help small businesses lease space in the street-level quarters of the vacant and nearly vacant office towers in Arlington. This could make Arlington’s neighborhoods more vibrant while demonstrating a strong commitment to small businesses wanting to establish a foothold here.
Arlington is still recovering from its experience as a “company town” for the federal government. Putting as much focus into our local small businesses will help us avoid reverting to the company town model while promoting the commercial diversity that reflects our progressive values and makes Arlington a great place to live, work and play.
Laura Saul Edwards has lived in Arlington County since 1994. She serves on the School Board’s Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Projects (FAC) and is an APS 2012 Honored Citizen.
Photo of local business owner Lisa Ostroff in Westover’s Trade Roots courtesy of Laura Saul Edwards