Report: Leesburg’s Economic Development Cure is ‘Speed, flexibility, Predictability’

A steering committee tasked with providing a comprehensive set of recommendations on Leesburg’s economic development strategy unveiled the results of its six-month effort during Monday night’s Town Council work session.

Committee Chairwoman Sharon Babbin, who also serves on the town’s Planning Commission, formally presented the council with the committee’s report—all 112 pages of it. The committee, made up of town commissioners, council members, and business representatives, met almost weekly since the spring to prepare the comprehensive set of recommendations. The committee also drew in a lot of additional representation with a series of panel discussions on wide-ranging subjects related to economic development.

“We’ve learned a lot over the last six months, but what we’ve learned mostly is that economic development is a competition,” Babbin said. “We have to build on our strengths and fix our weaknesses. We need to merge our vision and execution.”

Babbin said the report could be used both as an “action plan and a reference manual” to shepherd in improvements to the town’s economic development strategy.

Six key themes emerged from the recommendations.

The Development Process

Topping the list was the need to take a hard look at the town’s land development approval process, often criticized for its lengthiness.

“Speed, flexibility, and predictability,” Babbin said in summarizing the related recommendations. “These three words became a mantra for our committee.”

A fast track program should be implemented for land development application reviews, she said, noting that dragging out the process is costing developers more money and potentially making the town lose out on market opportunities. Requiring engineering drawings before the site plan stage, as well as an inflexible use list, were two criticisms heard widely. The town also needs to take a hard look at its ordinances, some of which were called “archaic,” and in more urban areas of the town still require a more suburban-style of development.

A key area for redevelopment opportunities in the town, the Crescent Design District, is another area of economic development that needs attention, Babbin stressed. The district endured its own lengthy process in its formulation, and a steering committee put together almost a decade ago to look at zoning controls for the area envisioned the use of form-based code zoning, which establish rules for building designs but more loosely regulates how the structures are used. But the end result of all that work missed the original intent, the report said.

“We were told by people involved in the [Crescent Design District] process that it suffered death by a thousand cuts. It was compromised out of its original intent so what we ended up with looks neither fish nor fowl. It’s not form-based code, it’s not Euclidean zoning; it’s some hybrid that is really the worst of all worlds,” she said.

Babbin said she and other committee members strongly urged the council to engage a consultant to do a peer review of the Crescent Design District to return the zoning rules to a true form-based code.

Downtown Partnerships

Noting the town’s recent popularity as a destination, the committee recommended continuing that momentum by adopting public-private partnership guidelines to create more economic development opportunities downtown, such as a performing arts center. The Liberty Street parking lot is an opportunity for the town to engage in a partnership to house such a center or a boutique hotel, more retail, residences, or structured parking, Babbin said.

“It’s time to take it to the next level,” she said.

One area that the committee advised staying away from, at least for the time being, is the pursuit of a Main Street organization to oversee downtown functions. The implementation of such a program was debated during the council’s fiscal year 2017 budget work after Town Manager Kaj Dentler recommended looking into it. But Babbin said the committee concluded it was an idea that should be initiated by the business community before the town government gets involved.

On parking, always a hot-button issue, the committee recommended the town government take on more responsibility to building parking infrastructure and concluded that the town’s current payment-in-lieu of parking fees charged to developers are “complex and unfair.” The panel recommended doing away with parking requirements in the urban areas of town and that be done to establish the downtown as a transit center for to support the workforce.

To help with the worker shortage facing many businesses, the report recommends increasing number of Affordable Dwelling Units available in Leesburg through the county’s homebuyer and rental program; and pursuing more incentives for workforce housing available through the state.

Next Steps           

The committee recommended sending its report to a subcommittee of the Planning Commission to integrate changes into the Town Plan.

Council members Monday were unsure about the formation of another subcommittee, saying they preferred to leave that up to the commission to decide. But all present expressed gratitude for the exhaustive work of the steering committee.

Councilman Ron Campbell, who put forward the initial idea to form the committee, said the group’s work can be looked at as a “starting point.” He served on the steering committee as a non-voting member along with Councilman Marty Martinez.

“In order to meet our destiny, we have to plan for our future,” Campbell said. “Unfortunately and fortunately the pressures upon us as a town are our own doing—we grew. Now we have to grow into our size wisely.”

Before sending the report to the Planning Commission for review, the council is expected to develop more specific marching orders to guide the commission’s work.

The full steering committee report can be viewed online at leesburgva.gov/edsc.

krodriguez@loudounnow.com

2 thoughts on “Report: Leesburg’s Economic Development Cure is ‘Speed, flexibility, Predictability’

  • 2017-11-15 at 9:19 am
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    Campbell has taken 10 months to come up with the same ideas that have been tried for 20 years. But it is news to him because he has only been involved in his community for 10 months. He likes to play with words “destiny” “future,” “Unfortunately and fortunately” “grew” “grow”. Then he says town staff has to figure out what he wants done even though he has no idea what he wants to do. He is a typical academic who knows theory but not how to put it to work.

  • 2017-11-15 at 11:43 am
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    I implore my Mayor and Town Council to question the Steering Committee’s motives for the following. When is it ever, and I mean ever, a consideration for Two Planning Commissioners or Two Town Council Members to concern themselves with the profitability of Developers!?!?!?!?!?!?

    Excerpt from the article:
    “A fast track program should be implemented for land development application reviews, she said, noting that dragging out the process is costing developers more money”……….

    Costing developers more money…… Hummm……. Imagine that, my Town Council Members, Planning Commissioners, and Economic Development Commissioner worried about DEVELOPERS making MORE MONEY……..

    There seems to be three (smaller) primary and outspoken downtown developers who have voiced their issues at a Town Council Meeting and elsewhere. They continue to put pressure, pressure, pressure, on my Mayor and Town Council about SPEEDING up development. I get that Folks in certain departments may be archaic, but let’s fix that, and if that equates to hiring someone, or firing someone, then just say it…… Much of the work is very, very mundane and takes time in order to be precise as you are dealing with the downtown area, which takes consideration. It seems the Developers want their cake and eat it too, aside from the one larger developer who seems to understand the financial, technical, and emotional processes involved.

    With that being said above, The Committee wants to “do away with” the Payment in Lieu for Parking, which is in direct contrast with that of the Town Parking Consultant. This ties into the development cited above and would give developers another freebie of about $6,000 per parking space (could equate to multiple 6K per each residence) that they cannot provide at the building under renovation. This concession, especially for smaller dwellings is utterly mind-boggling and beyond comprehension how anyone would concede this payment when it would place this financial burden on The Citizens of The Town of Leesburg moving forward. To make a point, a condominium charges each resident X amount of dollars starting on Day 1 that a brand new roof is installed. The new roof is guaranteed to last for 20 years, so each resident pays into their share based upon the agreed upon time frame (quarterly/yearly). If you move out at year 10, or someone moves in at year 10, nobody in essence, gets harmed financially by a 10-year old roof. For the In Lieu of Payment, it is a guarantee that OUR garage(s) is a substitute for the parking, which Ron Campbell, Marty Martinez, etc. and probably the likes of Kelly Burk have zero financial sensibility…….. This is my personal business and the business of the Garage Consultant who recommended the correct decision. If You opt to do away with the In Lieu Payment, you are in essence, not performing your Fiduciary Responsibility with Tax Payer Money. “and you and worried about Developers making more money” as stated by Ms. Babbin…………….. What you need to truly understand it that after 10-20, each garage repair project can cost millions of dollars, and who foots the bill, not the developers who were given a freebie pass by the Mayor and The Town Council, but the taxpayers. By then, if this gets pushed through, and anyone who touched this is still around, and I get taxed one penny, it will come back to haunt you.

    Ironically, Nothing cited about the Leesburg Airport and the net net zero profit that has been on the taxpayers of Leesburg for decades while the 1%’ers get to use it at our expense. The Airport benefits the entire County and not just the Town…… Kelly, Ron and Marty are intent on educating the public that the Airport is here to benefit YOU. You pay taxes on it even though YOU never use it. In the upcoming years, they want to build more hangars, and they don’t know how to pay for them. The Steering Committee has come up with some creative ways, and the Town Council is supposed to be talking to the County, but I feel it is a dog and pony show. Who knows, but only time will show. I suspect that tax payers will be fleeced once again, as always. The Airport belongs in the hands of the County!!!!! Kelly, Ron, Marty have a Fiduciary Responsibility to Leesburg, so let’s see how they handle this one…. Probable part and parcel as it’s not their own money….

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