By Roger Vance
Loudoun County has been at the forefront of what will be recognized as an historic revolution in communications and technology—one that has transformed our lives and reached every corner of the globe. The preponderance of global internet traffic passes through Loudoun and with that comes developers of software, applications and ancillary technology to facilitate and capitalize on that traffic
and a world increasingly digitally dependent. Loudoun’s global reputation as fertile ground for innovators and risk-taking entrepreneurs is well founded and county leaders have leveraged that reputation to attract cutting-edge enterprises and has fostered an environment to nurture the next wave of start ups. Indeed, Loudoun remains among the very top locales in the nation for business investment and job growth and the aggressive outreach, assistance and incentives offered by the county have been key to that success.
But innovation and entrepreneurship, which drives economic vitality and its corresponding benefits to all of Loudoun’s residents, is not restricted to the increasingly urban east. The technology and research corridors and sprawling data centers in eastern Loudoun have their corollary in innovative opportunities emerging in our rural west. As recognized by Loudoun’s Economic Development Department, those business opportunities come, to a large extent, with the territory: “No amount of incentive can make a bad location good. Loudoun County offers tremendous opportunities for the right businesses to thrive.”
Western Loudoun and its growing rural economy are justly earning the respect and recognition as critical components to this county’s dynamism. And, what has been and remains, at the core of this segment’s growth is the same entrepreneurial drive for innovation and business success that energizes the technology sector in the east. While at a different magnitude and with smaller numbers in revenues, jobs and overall immediate economic impact, fostering the rural economy accrues long-term benefits to all residents. Ensuring that thousands of acres remain in agricultural use rather than be consumed in sprawling residential development will, in the long term, save billions in costs for services. Likewise, the preservation of this unique urban-rural duality within Loudoun County should be regarded as an extraordinary asset that serves as a point of distinction in the competitive game of attracting cutting edge businesses and industries.
Fortunately, in place in the Loudoun Department of Economic Development is a strong rural business division dedicated to helping both new and existing rural businesses. The county’s Rural Economic Development Council is also a key voice in formulating and advocating policies in the interest of rural businesses. The current Board of Supervisors has shown an astute awareness of and support for building a robust rural economy.
But at the forefront of this effort are the men and women, old and young, longtime Loudouners and newcomers, who possess the drive and innovative spirit to take a chance on the land. The extraordinary endeavors over the past decades by risk-takers who have turned thousands of acres into productive vineyards have proven the agro-tourism hypothesis. In their wake are hundreds of agro-entrepreneurs seeking to create and carve out new niches to serve quality-conscious consumers. Everyone wants good, healthy food.
Indeed, within a stones throw of Hillsboro are dozens of these innovators who are fundamental to the future of farming and a robust rural economy. Don Virts is a family farmer who works day and night to maintain an uninterrupted 250-year tradition of farming Loudoun land by harnessing technology to grow organic produce all year round at CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture) Farm. Sam and Molly Kroiz at Georges Mill are just completing excavation for what will be one of only a handful of cheese caves in the southeast to better produce and protect their widely acclaimed organic cheeses. Dawson’s Gap Farm saw a need and opportunity to serve like-minded organic farmers to become a leading distributor in the commonwealth of non-GMO feeds and organic fertilizers. A historic barn houses Carol Lenhart’s Birch Hollow Yoga studio. Organic farmers, boutique farmers, craft brewers and distillers are pursuing their passions, and in turn building key outposts across the rural west to serve connoisseurs and leisure travelers. Farmhouses, historic homes, barns and structures are being saved through repurposing as bed and breakfasts, restaurants, event venues, galleries and artisan studios, further enhancing the viability of agro-tourism growth.
These, and countless other small businesses and entrepreneurs are taking risks and making significant investments—investments that will benefit all of Loudoun as well as themselves. Jobs and ancillary businesses are being created to support these enterprises.
Now is the time to match this private sector agro-innovation and investment by redoubling corresponding public-sector support akin to that delivered to traditional technology-industrial sectors at Loudoun’s Mason Enterprise Center. Imagine the impact of active investment and participation in an incubator to leverage and launch rural small businesses, and the development of financial incentives and access to financing for expansion of existing operations and start-ups.
Likewise, while maintaining vigilance to protect viewsheds and ensure appropriate-sized and compatible rural uses of land, streamlining bureaucracy and facilitating commonsense solutions that encourage investments should be a paramount goal.
In the next few years Loudoun will face growing threats to its rural west. Its viability is dependent on the ability of farmers and agro-tourism entrepreneurs to keep the land in sustainable productive uses. Just as county leaders have invested in making Loudoun a technology industry juggernaut, they have the opportunity to support the reimagining and resurgence of a strong agricultural/tourism economy, which will in turn ensure the preservation of a rural refuge at the doorstep of all of Loudoun’s residents.
It is time to support and unleash the innovators—east and west.
[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column appears monthly.]