Stepping Out: Business Leaders Enjoy an In-Person Economic Update

Early Wednesday morning about 30 Loudoun County business leaders gathered at Belmont Country Club to knock the rust off some long unused skills—an in-person breakfast meeting featuring networking and updates from community leaders.

The “stepping out” session, hosted by John Marshall Bank Regional President Paul Bice, served up one more example that Loudoun is regaining a sense of normal life. The main attraction at the event was an economic update offered by Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tony Howard, Visit Loudoun President and CEO Beth Erickson, and Loudoun’s Executive Director of Economic Development Buddy Rizer. With the panel fully vaccinated, the speakers were able to share a table maskless—still an unfamiliar sight in most public meeting settings.

Howard noted that the Chamber would typically pack the county club’s banquet room with more than 160 participants for the events it frequently held there before the onset of the pandemic. Instead of leading those sessions, Howard has spent the past year largely alone in the chamber’s Lansdowne office as his staff worked remotely.

The speakers touched on Loudoun’s handling of the pandemic and the continuing challenges to successfully emerge, as well as other major economic factors including the tight housing market and extraordinary impact of the data center sector.

“I was pleasantly surprised how well Loudoun did during this pandemic,” Rizer said. “Early on, our research showed that we could lose 40% of our businesses during the pandemic. Even though it went on longer, our numbers were much better than that. It is probably in the low teens, the businesses that didn’t survive. I think that speaks volumes, a lot, about the great business base that Loudoun has.”

Few other jurisdictions in the nation passed through the pandemic while reducing the property tax rate and giving government employees raises. While the data center market was the major budget booster—now generating nearly 50% of county tax revenues—Riser said most of Loudoun’s economy is performing well, with 15 new businesses starting in April and significant international investment pouring in.

A fully vaccinated panel of Tony Howard, Beth Erickson and Buddy Rizer speaks to a small crowd of business leaders at the Belmont Country Club during the May 5 Stepping Out forum sponsored by John Marshall Bank.

The hospitality industry took the hardest hit, but even there, Erickson said, the county’s diversity softened the blow.

Before the pandemic, more people worked in Loudoun’s hospitality than for the county government and school division combined, she said.

However, Loudoun’s outdoor attractions, including its wineries and breweries, and its historic downtowns continued to attract visitors, and the county continued to be a destination for sports tournaments and drive-market tourism, she noted. The big missing piece has been meetings and conferences.

“What we need to do is bring back the business segment. We need to get back the business of meeting so that we can continue to fuel innovation, face-to-face discoveries, but more importantly drive important revenue to our communities. When we start seeing business meetings come back, we know we’re on the right path,” Erickson said.

Howard noted the challenges rebounding businesses face to rebuild their staffing, attributable in no small part to the higher unemployment payments the federal government is paying.

“It’s tough to get those folks back to those entry level, service level-type positions because the unemployment benefits, they are receiving are so much more lucrative. When you can get more money to sit on your duff rather than show up on time and prepared for work every day, I bet everyone in this room would take that latter option,” he said.

The panel shared a sense of optimism for the months ahead.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the way Loudoun has responded from a social standpoint and from a business standpoint,” Rizer said.

“The good news is it looks like we can hit herd immunity by July because of vaccination compliance rate is through the roof. It’s nearly 90%,” Howard said. “You do need to keep doing the right things. You’re wearing your mask. You’re washing your hands. You’re staying distant. All those things. Frankly, I don’t care if you believe in those things or not, but we’ve got to do it because it is necessary to get this back. It is not just about you. It is not just about your business or your family. It is about all of our businesses and all of our families.”

Erickson said the county has all the building blocks for success.

“When you build a place where people want to visit, you build a place where people want to live. And when you build a place where people want to live, you build a place where jobs need to go and businesses needs to be,” Erickson said. “Loudoun County certainly has that special sauce … We’re very lucky to be here.”

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