Leesburg’s Economic Development Steering Committee kicked off its work Wednesday night, meeting for the first time with a newly hired consultant and a full roster of community representatives.
Created after the Town Council balked at a proposal to create a Main Street program to boost visitor traffic downtown, the panel is charged with updating the town’s overall business development strategy, with its recommendations to be folded into the Town Plan.
Although the council’s charge was to take a fresh look at the town’s long view for economic development, it was quickly clear that the panel’s work will include current concerns, as well.
Chairwoman Sharon Babbin, who serves on the town Planning Commission, said she hopes to bring in panels of developers, business owners, landlords and others during the committee’s weekly meetings to dive deeply into the challenges and opportunities for job creation and commercial tax revenue growth. Also, the town has hired a consultant, Anita Morrison of Partners for Economic Solutions, to help guide the work.
The centerpiece of this week’s meeting was an overview of the town’s past economic development initiatives—some that achieved success, some that were never implemented by the council, and some—such as parking policies—that have been debated over and over for decades.
Economic Development Director Marantha Edwards presented a review of the town’s Business Development Strategy that was developed in 2003, laying the groundwork for much of the work that has been done since—everything from the integrated visitor signage system to the creation of the Crescent District redevelopment zone. Noting that the plan’s downtown sidewalk widening project was completed in 2015 and the first Crescent District projects are just now coming to fruition, she said, “it may have taken a while, but we’re knocking things off the list.”
While recent downtown successes were prominent in the conversation, the committee will be looking beyond the historic district to other sectors, including the mixed-use developments in the East Market Street corridor, the potential to attract other high-tech manufacturing businesses near Leesburg Executive Airport where EIT and K2M have built new facilities, and places to accommodate flex-industrial uses that are being priced out of eastern Loudoun as data centers move in.
The group identified challenges, too.
A prominent one was termed “brand damage.” That’s the regional reputation—earned or not—that Leesburg’s regulatory review process is cumbersome and costly. The concern famously reached a tipping point a decade ago when Wolf Furniture abandoned plans to build a showroom on Fort Evans Road after frustrating delays getting its development plans approved. The incident prompted the town to restructure its review processes. Five years later, Wolf retuned and completed the project.
Assistant Town Manager Scott Parker, who is the staff liaison for the steering committee, had a hand in that turnaround. He said the staff members today realize the time-is-money importance of their work, but acknowledged that there’s still room for improvement.
David Faliskie, EIT’s president and CEO who serves on the committee, provided a recent example. As his company was preparing to move 150 employees into its new Leesburg plant, an occupancy permit was held up because the grass seed had not germinated densely enough to meet town standards. To get the doors open, crews were brought in to lay sod at the last minute.
Charlie Keiler, of Kettler, said his company’s years-long effort to replace a nearly 80-year-old bridge—part of a multi-million-dollar road project by the Village at Leesburg—are being held up by Virginia Department of Transportation engineers who recently presented 33 pages of comments to be addressed.
Businesses need predictability, Edwards said, adding that it is hard to fix the reputation once word spreads that the town is hard to work with.
Another business concern is linked to the town’s housing inventory. Edwards said it’s important to attract the workforce that businesses need. She said one of the town’s prominent information technology companies may move to Arlington to be closer to the core of young high-tech workers it needs.
Creating a long-term strategy to ensure the Loudon County government keeps its office operations in town also was cited as an economic development priority.
Those challenges aside, committee members agreed there are a lot of good things happening in Leesburg’s business community.
Committee member Rick Allison, owner of the King Street Oyster Bar, said he’s seen big, positive changes downtown over the past three years. Each new restaurant and brewery that opens brings more customers for the existing businesses, he said. “It feels like a hometown. It feels warm and inviting.”
That’s a brand image the committee hopes to build on in the weeks ahead.
The panel will meet on Wednesday nights through the summer and fall, making its report to the Town Council in October.