Loudoun leaders were given a decidedly optimistic view of the county’s economic development landscape during a May 5 forum that highlighted ample opportunities to grow and diversify the business base.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10), County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and Economic Development Director Buddy Rizer were the featured speakers during the Loudoun County Economic Development Summit sponsored by Toth Financial, John Marshall Bank, and Yount, Hyde & Barbour.
The trio focused their remarks on the possibilities that lie ahead—with the coming of the Silver Line, the leveraging of data center resources, the continued business recruitment outreach, locally and globally—and the search for the next “big thing.”
“My biggest fear is that some 14-year-old is sitting in his garage inventing something that would make data centers obsolete,” Randall said to laughter as she acknowledged the economic boon that industry has brought to Loudoun the past decade. The facilities were credited with generating $104 million in local tax revenues last year.
All three speakers highlighted the need to support innovation.
Randall, for example, said the growth of Loudoun’s rural economy could not be limited to wineries and breweries but would have to include hydroponic businesses and farming. “You never want an economy to depend on just one thing.”
Comstock touted opportunities that can come from blending big data and medical research that could result in new treatments for diseases such as diabetes. Those advances won’t only help patients, but could also help in the battle to reduce spending on entitlement programs.
“When you look at the cost that we have in Medicare and Medicaid—hundreds of billions of dollars are for diabetes,” she said.
Comstock also sees big growth coming in cyber security, which she described as an element of the nation’s defense as important as the military branches. Local government contractors and IT firms will play leading roles in that arena.
“This region should be the hub and center of massive cyber growth because it is something that we need. It really is becoming the fifth part of our defense system,” Comstock said. “We have to have cyber and we need to be leaders in it.”
“I see nothing but possibilities,” Rizer said, putting special emphasis on opportunities linked to the Silver Line extension and Dulles Airport.
“With Metro coming in there is so much ahead of us,” he said. “We could have Fortune 50 office buildings at our Metro.”
Rizer said the Metro extension would lead to bigger things. In Northern Virginia last year, 92 percent of new office leases involved buildings located within 2.5 miles of metro stations, he said. “We’re competing for deals now that we were never able to compete for before. That’s a game changer for economic development and for Loudoun County.”
A business ranked in the top 25 of Fortune magazine’s list of largest companies was visiting Loudoun later that day to look at commercial space options, Rizer said.
He envisions convention centers, innovation centers, even sport stadiums being developed along the rail line. “Who knows what we could have. It is ‘Loudoun Possible’ for us to have that opportunity and we need to keep looking for that opportunity.”
Even with the Silver Line’s operations years away—trains won’t begin running until 2020—Loudoun continues to lead Virginia in commercial investment. Rizer said the county was on pace for $2 billion in new commercial investment this year and expects to lead the state for the fourth consecutive year.
He said technology is driving the growth. “The technology is not just about data centers, but everything around the data centers,” he said, noting the importance of companies focused on analytics, big data, health information, cyber security and defense. “There’re real opportunities that come from this, and we’re going to continue to foster that.”
The county’s global marketing strategy also is paying benefits, Rizer said. He traveled with Gov. Terry McAuliffe on a trade mission to Germany earlier this month and alerted the crowd to look forward to an announcement of a German company planning a $9 million investment in Loudoun during 2017.
Randall sees challenges in the housing sector, especially after a new state law that limits the county’s ability to negotiate proffers with developers takes effect July 1. That could hurt efforts to create more affordable housing, she said.
It’s an issue on which the Board of Supervisors will be focusing, and Randall said it might take some out-of-the-box thinking. She floated the notion of converting empty commercial buildings to housing in an effort to address the need.
There also will be a push for more mixed-use communities—to meet the needs of Millennials and retirees alike, she said. “The things Millennials want—those walkable urban communities where you live, learn, work and play are the same thing these late stage baby boomers want. They have the exact same check on that list,” Randall said.
Among the questions from the audience was how the polarized political landscape will impact the region’s opportunities for growth.
“Innovate or die is the motto no matter where you are in the world because we are competing internationally,” Comstock said. “It’s not about Democrat or Republican anymore; it’s about: Are we going to be the leaders in the world on all these policies?”