Economic Development, Tourism Leaders Highlight Northern Virginia’s Unparalleled Opportunities

Representatives of the economic development and tourism arms of Loudoun and Fairfax counties say there’s more cooperation than competition between the jurisdiction.

They were speaking to a crowd of business leaders during John Marshall Bank’s Bi-County Economic Summit at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne on April 26.

Representing Loudoun were Department of Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer and Visit Loudoun President and CEO Beth Erickson. They were joined by Fairfax County Economic Development Authority President and CEO Gerald L. Gordon and Barry H. Bigger, president and CEO of Visit Fairfax. The panel discussion, touching on the economic strengths of the region, challenges of workforce development and opportunities for venture capital investment, was moderated by John Marshall Bank’s Loudoun County Region President Paul Bice.

The key takeaway from the program was a refresher on the region’s undisputed role as Virginia’s economic engine, generating 42 percent of the state’s tourism revenues and 44 percent of the commonwealth’s income taxes.

All four industry representatives agreed that business prospects and visitors don’t know, or care, where the county borders begin or end. And, in large part, business leaders from each of the Northern Virginia jurisdictions work together to make the region stronger and more attractive to investment.

“The reality of the situation is that we collaborate a lot,” Rizer said. “What is really important to Loudoun is also really important to Fairfax—that is that the region is really strong.”

And that work is paying off, Rizer said. “There is really no better place right now to be doing this job than in Northern Virginia. There is so much momentum here. There is so much going on. The opportunities are so great.”

Among the key challenges to building on that success are workforce supply and development, housing, and transportation— although, the panelists said, Northern Virginia ranks well in those areas compared with other popular markets, such as California, New York or Boston.

Rizer pointed out that some of the region’s economic strengths—including low unemployment and high household incomes—aren’t necessarily attractive assets for prospective businesses. But the panel agreed that Northern Virginia has much to offer. Gordon noted that other areas of the country competing for business development have higher costs of living and higher wages and worse traffic.

To expand the workforce, especially in high-tech fields, the panel pointed to the need to get the region’s well-educated high school students to return to the area for jobs after college, to expand STEM learning in kindergarten through high school, and to keep female students involved in math and science beyond their middle school years.

They said it also was important to create an active community environment—with ample entertainment and cultural opportunities—today’s workers demand. “Really tourism is that first date of economic development. Tourism creates the environment, the ecosystem that attracts businesses and retains employees,” Erickson said. “A happy workforce is really good for business.”

Housing supply and affordability is a concern.

“If it is not a crisis, it is pretty darn close right now,” Rizer said. “If you’re going to say we don’t want more housing, what effectively we’re saying is ‘we don’t want more workforce,’ which then follows ‘we don’t want more companies,’ which means ‘we don’t want more tax base,’ which means we have all of the money we need—which I don’t think any of us believe.”

A focus also has been on attracting more millennials and combatting the perception that this important component of the workforce only wants to live in the urban settings offered by Arlington and Alexandria. Gordon said that, while those areas may have the highest density of millennial workers, Fairfax is home to seven times as many—and they live closer to the county’s fast-growing high-tech companies. And he pointed to a study showing that many Arlington residents working in the IT sector commute to Tysons Corner via the Silver Line. “It is not as important as where they live as where they work,” Gordon said.

While the Silver Line is an asset to the region, Rizer noted that it won’t solve the transportation problems.

“There is no one solution. Metro isn’t the one solution,” he said. He also questioned the General Assembly’s action to divert money from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s planned road improvement projects to the Washington Metropolitan Washington Transit Authority. “You hate the idea of taking money from road projects to pay for Metro. We’ve got to find a better way of doing this.”

Gordon noted that other communities are envious of Northern Virginia’s transportation problems. “It’s about people going to work. Ghost towns don’t have traffic congestion,” he said. “People have jobs here. Other communities would love to have that problem rather than the opposite problem.”

And as much as residents and business leaders gripe about rush hour gridlock and other challenges in the market, Gordon said the quality of life in the region clearly outweighs the inconveniences when businesses evaluate where to locate.

“I don’t see them going. I hear them [complaining] about it, but I don’t see anybody leaving. So there is something about opportunities that are here.”

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