In hurried meetings in windowless rooms in the Loudoun County government center, dozens of people in unheralded committees within committees are trying to give Loudoun a nightlife.
Members of the Nighttime Economy Ad Hoc Committee—of the Economic Development Advisory Commission, of the Finance/Government Operations and Economic Development Committee, of the Board of Supervisors—and its seven subcommittees have been working since June to find a way to fit the newest old development idea, urban walkable environments, into Loudoun County.
“There’s a cultural phenomenon happening in the country,” said NEAC co-chairman and Loudoun Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tony Howard. “Folks are moving back toward the cities. In my parents’ generation, and in my generation a little bit, folks were migrating out from the cities, and that’s why Loudoun developed as well as it did since the ’80s.”
Loudoun’s suburban leanings have served it well in the past, and there’s still a need for suburban homes. The county has grown explosively as people move further out from the DC area.
Now, however, Loudoun businesses complain they have difficulty attracting workforce, because younger employees demand an urban walkable environment: a place where people can go about daily routines without climbing into the car. People are moving back to the cities.
That urban environment has a few notable traits, among them population density and nightlife.
“In order for mixed-use to be successful, it really does take an 18-hour economy,” said NEAC’s other co-chairman, Todd Pearson. “You have to have morning, daytime, and nighttime. Right now, you’ll maybe have some lunch, and there’s some evening play, but there’s really no nighttime economy, so that was one of the areas that we thought needed some improvement.”
Pearson, 35, is the perfect example of the sort of young professional Loudoun loses out on. Successful, entrepreneurial, and with a young family, he felt forced to leave Loudoun to live his demanding lifestyle. His family has lived for generations in the county, and after growing up here, coming back after college, and starting a family, he was the first in his family to leave. He now lives in Washington, DC.
“I was getting up and leaving before my kids woke up, and getting home after they went to bed, and it just wasn’t something that was suitable for my family,” Pearson said. “When I first got my license, that was like I got freedom. And now the car has become a ball and chain around my leg, and it’s a time suck.”
The new generation’s emphasis has shifted, Pearson said. They chafe at time wasted sitting in traffic. Where before employees sought work-life balance—keeping the two separate—now they seek work-life integration.
“All that adds time back into my life, and there’s that integration factor where I’ve got things that are overlapping, where I’m gaining time,” Pearson said.
But it’s not too late to bring him back.
“That being said: I think Loudoun is a great place to live,” he continued. “That’s why I’m still heavily invested out here, and still heavily involved. To the extent that we could find that live-work-play environment, we would certainly consider it.”
NEAC members are conscious of how the urban walkable environment would fit into Loudoun.
“It’s not always the answer, but I do think that there is a case to be made for how density can actually relieve some of the issues that Loudoun has, taking the pressure off the rural economy,” Pearson said. These high-density environments also come with efficiencies in utilities and transportation, making the infrastructure investment dollar go further. And building high-density areas in eastern Loudoun could protect western Loudoun from suburban sprawl.
“Growth’s going to happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it, and it should happen,” Pearson said. “There’s really two ways you can accommodate growth, and that is: sprawl… and vertical growth.”
In other words, encourage strategically chosen spots to grow densely populated, instead of building more acres of suburban homes.
The new Metro stations figure well into this concept. The Loudoun Gateway Station, at the northern end of Dulles Airport, and the Ashburn Station, near the Dulles Greenway’s Rt. 772 interchange, are slated to open in 2020.
The Loudoun Station development, just west of the Ashburn Station site, is an early implementation of the higher density, mixed-use idea, with shopping, dining, entertainment, and living all in one place.
“We’re going to look back on this in 10, 15, 20 years and say, this was just a postage stamp size compared to the overall development,” Howard said.
Howard and Pearson hope to have NEAC’s recommendations in place in time to guide major development along the Metro corridor and elsewhere as the regional economy continues to recover from the 2008 recession.
“I think that markets going to dictate when things actually happen, but the next couple of years, from a policy perspective … are just as critical as the actual decision to bring Metro to Loudoun,” Pearson said.
NEAC is now ready to go to the public. The background reading and consulting is done. The subcommittees have met. It will present its draft recommendations for public input at a meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 26, at Loudoun Station. The public will meet at BLVD at 43805 Central Station Drive in Ashburn.
Members will take the input back to committee, factor it into their recommendations, and then those recommendations will make their way up the chain: through EDAC, to the finance committee, and to the Board of Supervisors. Howard said it will provide “best practice understanding,” perspective, guidance, and a picture of “how it can all fit together.”
“I think it takes a lot of foresight, it takes a big investment, and a lot of belief,” Pearson said. “I think the demand’s there. The question is: How do you get to critical mass?”
The Nighttime Economy Ad Hoc Committee will take public input on its recommendations to boost Loudoun’s night life at a meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9, at BLVD in Loudoun Station. The address is 43805 Central Station Drive in Ashburn. You can also lend your voice through a survey at surveymonkey.com/r/247Loudoun.