“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” outgoing Leesburg Economic Development Director Marantha Edwards said recently over a cup of hot chocolate.
She was sitting in Delirium Café, one of the many restaurants that has been a part of the downtown area’s recent resurgence. Looking out over the bustling sidewalks of King and Loudoun streets she recalled the changes in the town’s business community over the almost 18 years she has been a central figure of the town’s Economic Development Department. Edwards first reflected on the people she will be leaving come Dec. 22, her last day as a member of town staff.
“It’s going to be so hard to leave them, because they’re such inspiring and funny people,” she said. “It’s that bond that goes on with the staff. Most of them have been there [with me] the last 15 years.”
Save for a handful of retirements, the staff has been one of the only things that hasn’t changed during Edwards’ tenure, which was marked by rapid growth and frequent changes of business strategies of town leaders.
For Edwards, caring about Leesburg’s present and future started long ago.
She moved with her family from Rhode Island to Loudoun County in 1969, living in Ashburn for a year before settling in Leesburg. She graduated from Broad Run High School, and received her bachelor’s degree at James Madison University. She eventually returned to Leesburg where she and her husband, Leon, whom she met while working at Westpark Golf Club, raised their two children. The early part of her career included stops at Loudoun County Public Schools, where she worked as a media assistant at Evergreen Mill Elementary School; self-employed as a marketing and customer service consultant; and the airline industry.
She was hired by the town in 2000 for the newly created position of tourism coordinator. She held a variety of titles during her town tenure as the scope of her duties increased, including tourism and marketing manager, business development manager, and economic development manager. She was given the job title of economic development director in 2012, though she has been the department’s top dog since the end of 2007 following a massive Town Hall reorganization spearheaded by former town manager John Wells.
She did much of her work in isolation, often as the lone member of the economic development staff, or with just one other department member. She has moved her offices space at least seven times. During many spring budget deliberations, Edwards found her department in the crosshairs of cost-cutters who questioned allocation of those resources allocated and the return on investment. And with the changing faces on the Town Council dais, and the goals and priorities of town leaders also shifted frequently.
“It’s like having a new boss every two years,” she said.
Edwards also found herself tested by the changing economy, perhaps most notably with the recession that kicked off in earnest in 2008, precipitated by the crash of the housing market. This came on the heels of a 2007 announcement by Pennsylvania-based retailer Wolf Furniture that it would be abandoning its plans to open a showroom in the town, citing the onerous land development process. That set off a slew of changes in Town Hall, not to mention some public relations challenges, that she also needed to wrap her arms around.
She pushed forward with intestinal fortitude and her belief that Leesburg was a great place to live, work, and play. “You have to believe in something. You have to know it’s a great product to help market it,” Edwards said.
After all, it was the great schools and great quality of life that kept the Edwards family in Leesburg for going on a half century.
“If self-fulfilling prophecy was going to make it better, that’s what we were trying to do,” she said. “It was about focusing on those things that were good so that you didn’t have to focus on the things that weren’t working.”
But a lot has worked since Edwards took the helm of the department. She points to a few accomplishments of which she is particularly proud, including the development growth of the Mason Enterprise Center business incubator; the expansion or relocation of some major corporate businesses, including K2M and EIT; and the work of the Business Assistance Team to address flaws in the land development review process. Edwards also is ebullient about the resurgence of the downtown area, with its hot restaurant and nightlife scene, and her work on ordinance changes that helped to give rise to the growth of the local brewpub scene.
Economic development has never been an easy business to be in, in good times or bad, because of how hard it can be to show ROI, she said. But providing those concierge-type services to current or prospective businesses, and making connections and building relationships can be a difference maker that can be quantified in the business taxes generated by their growth, success, or relocation, Edwards said.
“When economic development staff does the work of bringing businesses and helping develop commercial revenue, that generates taxes, business taxes that the residents don’t have to pay,” she said.
She points to the number of town residents who can now find good jobs within corporate limits.
“Think of all the years you had to leave Leesburg to get a decent job,” she said, noting that early in her career she would make the drive to Rockville, MD, to make $26,000 a year. “That isn’t necessarily the case anymore. You can get a good-paying job here. [Leesburg] isn’t the bedroom community it used to be. It’s not a place where 90 percent of the people leave to get a good job.”
There’s still work to be done, she acknowledges, but that will be left to new department director Russell Seymour, who has his own set of goals and priorities for the job. But Edwards hopes that recommendations recently brought forward both by the Economic Development Steering Committee and in developer and business owner interviews conducted by Edwards and Public Information Officer Betsy Arnett will be seriously considered. She also believes some type of downtown business organization, whether Main Street or something of that ilk, could be a good step forward.
“As a resident, I’m not going to stop caring about downtown,” she said. “I think when downtown can be as strong as it can possibly be, everyone else will thrive.”
She said economic development takes many pieces, and she’s hopeful that Seymour, the Town Council, and other stakeholders will help continue the positive momentum.
“Economic development needs to continue to be nimble, and they need to do all they can to let the world know the town is open for business and what makes it good for business,” she said. “It takes more staff, it takes more budget, it takes branding, it takes marketing. Because you can’t sit at your desk and reach the world.”
With the baton now passed to Seymour to continue that journey, Edwards feels her efforts serving the town were well spent. She hasn’t ruled out future roles in the economic development field, but said for now she’s looking forward to a well-deserved break.
“The other night at First Friday I hear people say, ‘I love Leesburg, I’m never going to leave’,” she says. “When you hear people say how much they love this place, when I see kids that went to high school with my son and graduated in 2000 and go away to college and come back and raise their families here … it’s all I ever wanted, to make my community a better place.”