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De Ferranti Highlights Economic Recovery, Honors Heroes in State of County Speech

Fewer COVID-19 cases. Lower unemployment. Higher hotel occupancy rates. These and other signs point to Arlington County’s continued recovery, according to Board Chair Matt de Ferranti.

During the annual State of the County address, the chair said Arlington County is well on the road to economic recovery but it has a ways to go before it enters into a period of renewal. The event was hosted virtually yesterday morning (Tuesday) by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, with a Q&A moderated by ARLnow founder Scott Brodbeck.

“We’re growing, but not as fast as at the start of 2020, before the pandemic, when our prospects seemed truly bright,” he said. “If we’re honest, recovery is not all we’re looking for at this moment. The state that we have not reached — that we must create — is renewal.”

Reaching renewal will mean supporting small businesses, working to eliminate inequities and increasing housing options, he said.

Recent data show the health of Arlington County residents has stabilized, with a 0.6% COVID-19 test positivity rate and about one case per day over the last two weeks. Unemployment is down, as well, from 7.2% this time last year to 3% today, he said. As vaccination rates rise, tourism is recovering, with hotel occupancy rates up to 40% from a low of 20%.

The county has also retained organizations with an Arlington footprint, including the State Department, while attracting new companies, from Microsoft to shipping company ZeBox‘s startup incubator. All along, Amazon continues to meet its occupancy and hiring goals while supporting businesses, he said, and will present its second phase of its HQ2 to the Board later this year.

Plus, new development is continuing.

“The County Board has approved numerous office and residential projects that will drive economic growth… and strengthen our economy in Arlington,” de Ferranti said. “We’re hearing from commercial real estate brokers that there is significant pent-up demand from [office] tenants who delayed real estate decisions in the pandemic. We expect to see these deals come forward in the fall of this year.”

Still, the office vacancy rate is a lingering concern for de Ferranti, who noted that it was 18.7% in the first quarter, up 2.1% from the same time last year.

“Part of the reason I sought this office was to bring down the vacancy rate so that we could invest in schools, housing, transit, transportation and the things that make Arlington a great place to live,” he said. “Our economic development projects show promise, our pipeline is strong, so I’m confident we can bring down the rate over the coming years.”

The county will need to engage with companies already here and those eyeing Arlington while adapting to 21st-century office needs through measures such as office-to-apartment conversions, he said.

“We saw before Amazon that there was a time when we got a touch complacent working on our office vacancy rate,” he said. “That’s no one’s fault but we do need to stay focused on it.”

While it’s mostly larger companies that help to fill Arlington’s office towers, small businesses in Arlington need help, de Ferranti said, so Arlington Economic Development is preparing a grant program using American Rescue Plan funds. It follows up on a similar program last year that helped 393 businesses.

The county still has work to do to fix bugs with the online permit system and improve the customer service experience for businesses — lessons learned from the roll-out of temporary outdoor seating areas, or TOSAs, the chair admitted.

But there are deeper equity questions that linger, said de Ferranti.

More than 6.5% of Arlingtonians — more than 15,000 people — live below the poverty line, earning $13,000 for one person and up to $26,000 for a family of four. Food pantry visits were up 23% to more than 3,500 households during the pandemic. The county prevented evictions for about 2,000 households while some residents have endured poor living conditions in affordable housing complexes such as the Serrano Apartments along Columbia Pike, he said.

“We are working diligently to ensure those residents are cared for,” he said. “We need to make sure it doesn’t happen again or elsewhere in our county.”

De Ferranti highlighted the last five years of investment in affordable housing through the county’s loan program, which has brought the number of committed affordable housing units to nearly 8,600. Looking forward, de Ferranti said amended housing policies will be needed to ensure Arlington is an affordable place to live.

A report recommending approaches to solve Arlington’s housing shortage is set to come before the board in the coming months, he said.

“If we don’t provide duplexes, triplexes, and refurbish and renew our housing through missing middle and other policies, we are going to become more and more unaffordable,” he said.

The annual event also honored public safety personnel and first responders from the Fire Department, Police Department, Office of Public Safety Communications & Emergency Management, and the Sheriff’s Office. Individual public safety employees were recognized for their long careers and their work during the pandemic, as well as for individual, life-saving acts.

“We can all agree that this has been a challenging year for anyone on the front lines of public safety,” de Ferranti said. “I also hope we can take a second to think about the reality that on any day or evening, any one of us may be in the position of putting our lives in the hands of our public safety professionals.

More from an Arlington Chamber of Commerce press release:

These honorees went above and beyond their call of duty to ensure the safety of our community. Meritorious Service honorees included a deputy administrator from the Department of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management who has confidently displayed his ability remain calm and calculated in crises for nearly 30 years, including during 9/11 and COVID-19. Three police officers were recognized for their quick action in saving the life of a man having a medical emergency, as was a Sheriff’s deputy for using CPR to assist someone having a heart attack at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Two members of the Fire Department received Valor and Valor with Life-Saving Awards for their heroic actions risking their own personal safety in saving the life of a person who had fallen 30-40 feet off an embankment located on the George Washington Parkway.

The 2021 Public Safety Award honorees are as follows:

Arlington County Department of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management

Meritorious Service Award: Deputy Administrator Jeff Horwitz

Arlington County Office of the Sheriff

Life-Saving Award: Corporal Nelson Soliz

Arlington County Police Department

Meritorious Service Award: Detective Greg Sloan

Life-Saving Award: Lieutenant Eliseo Pilco, Corporal Lauren Lugasi, Corporal Nicole Pehrson

Arlington County Fire Department

Meritorious Service Award:  Firefighter/EMT II Evan Hogan

Life-Saving Award: Firefighter Timothy Perkins

Valor Award: Firefighter/Paramedic/TRT Specialist Justin Armijo

Valor with Life-Saving Award: Firefighter/EMT/TRT Specialist Jeremy Tate

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