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Biz Talk: A Look Back on Economic Development in FY20

This article was written by Marian Marquez, Director of Business Investment for Arlington Economic Development.

It’s the end of Arlington County’s fiscal year, a time when we look back at our activities over the past twelve months to reflect on our collective wins, challenges and opportunities.

As we step cautiously into a new year, we know already that it will be like no other and I find myself trying to remember where we were at this time last year… riding the momentum of a solid year of wins and the excitement of welcoming Amazon’s second headquarters to Arlington, the future was bright!

After working together as a region to win this historic economic development project, relationships among the localities had never been stronger and we were getting ready to announce the formation of a regional economic development organization, the Northern Virginia Economic Development Alliance (NOVA EDA). With a reshuffling of economic development leadership in Northern Virginia we were at a unique point in time to join forces to make this great region stronger than ever.

At this time last year, Arlington’s vacancy rate was steadily trending downward and was around 16.5% from its peak of 21% in 2015 when we began an aggressive effort to market Arlington, further diversify the economy into fast growing sectors, and build out our tech ecosystem. With a global spotlight on our region, the State of Virginia’s over $1 billion investment in the education system and tech talent pipeline, plus a newly formed regional alliance to market the heck out of our assets, we believed the only way was up!

When I think back to what our perceived challenges were at the time, they feel rather luxurious — after all, we were still able to meet with prospective companies in person and companies were still able to occupy office space, literally.

During the first half of this fiscal year we worked hard to attract and retain companies in our target sectors such as Block.One, a blockchain company that placed its global headquarters in Rosslyn, as well as tech startups Scoutbee and Amify in Crystal City. We also saw significant wins within our foundational sectors with the retention the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Shirlington and Raytheon in Rosslyn, and notable expansions among several key employers including Nestlé, Mastercard and Evolent Health.

We watched our vacancy rate drop further, dipping below 15%, the lowest it’s been since 2012. In January 2020, I stepped up to lead our business investment with a focus on reengagement with strategic partners and restructuring the team to take a greater focus on engaging existing businesses. A few weeks later we welcomed our new Director, Telly Tucker, and two months later, on Friday, March 13, we all received stay-at-home orders.

Our team was gripped with a host of concerns, many of which we are still grappling with now: What will this mean for our business community, what will the future office market look like, what does this mean for the work that we do, what does the bottom line look like?

Whereas typically our Business Investment team works with office tenants, we, like many others, quickly pivoted to support the areas with greatest need in the community, which were among the small businesses and retailers who rely on in-person interaction to carry out their business and were most impacted by the stay-at-home orders.

Through the hard work of Arlington County staff and the contributions of our partners, the Arlington Industrial Development Authority and the Ballston, Crystal City and Rosslyn Business Improvement Districts, we were able to stand up Arlington’s Small Business Emergency GRANT program, providing financial assistance to 394 Arlington businesses.

While the future holds many unknowns, here are a few things that we do know: Arlington’s business community is resilient and has withstood a series of crises including 9/11, the global financial crisis and federal impacts including BRAC and sequestration. Our business community is more diversified than ever, and we remain fortunate to have a large representation of federal, professional services and technology firms in our midst, sectors that are faring better than other, more traditional sectors. We are also fortunate to have some of the brightest, most creative and hard-working people living and working here.

So, while we have certainly seen a slowdown in corporate moves and await the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on the Arlington office market, there continues to be interest in Arlington as a business location.

Microsoft’s recent announcement that it will create 1,500 new jobs and occupy 400,000 square feet of office space at Reston Town Center and the fact that Amazon has moved full steam ahead with the buildout of its Arlington headquarters and recently hired its 1,000th employee, are further affirmation that our fundamentals of talent, location and transportation infrastructure continue to attract and retain employers and will help us withstand this pandemic.

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