Group strives to find out what drives citys economy

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The Economic Sustain
ability Work Group has delivered its report to the Alexandria City Council. It will be presented to the community in August and September and set for public hearing later in the fall.

Mayor Bill Euille established the group last year to look at ways to reduce the citys reliance on real estate taxes as a main source of revenue. We cannot continue to place the burden for funding city services on the backs of our homeowners, Euille said.

The group, comprised of business owners and other leaders in the business community, was chaired by Nigel Morris, former CEO of Capital One. The two primary recommendations were that Alexandria needs a coordinated economic development strategy and a vision for what type of community it is and what types of businesses it wants to attract.

Economic development
Currently the citys economic development functions are shared by the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, the Small Business Development Center, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, the Eisenhower Partnership, the Potomac West Business Association, the King Street Business and Professional Association and the West End Business Association, to name a few. The city provides funding for ACVA, AEDP and the SBDC, in particular, and city staff and members of City Council sit on the Boards of Directors of ACVA and AEDP. Both of these organizations have just hired new executive directors.

While the report does recommend that we consolidate economic development under one roof, so to speak, the Boards of these two organizations decided to move forward with hiring new leaders, Euille said. Implementation of any of the Work Groups recommendations is some time in the future and there is still work to be done by these groups in the meantime. This does not preclude our making the decision to consolidate economic development at some later date.

Arlington and Fairfax counties both gave offices of economic development within their governmental structures. We need one office that coordinates economic development and a clear vision that guides that coordination, said Councilman Paul Smedberg. Right now, that isnt happening and the city is suffering because of that lack. If the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office hadnt moved to Alexandria, we would have gained no new jobs in the past five years. This, while the rest of Northern Virginia is experiencing significant job growth.

Marketing
Part of economic development is marketing. Smedberg represents council on another task force that is looking at marketing strategies for the city.

Like with economic development, we have no clearly articulated vision about the city, Smedberg said. For example, do we want more hotels? Do we want to attract more associations? What kind of industry do we want? What types of businesses do we want to attract? We need to answer these questions as a community and then market to those entities.

Euille agreed. We are beginning to look at trying to attract some national chains, not just for malls, but as anchors on King Street, for example. For some reason, the large chains havent chosen Alexandria as a place to locate. We believe thats because we havent sought them out, he said.

Euille is working with General Growth, the owners of Landmark Mall, to keep Sears and Macys at Landmark when it is redeveloped. General Growth owns the mall but the two anchors are owned separately, he said. We are trying to convince them that the mixed use development that General Growth is proposing would be good for them and that they dont have to be in an enclosed mall to be successful here.

Tourism has long been a key to Alexandrias economic success. A number of hotels have changed hands over the past couple of years and more are being built, Euille said. With the National Harbor project coming online in April, 2008, we want to look at taking advantage of the growth in the hotel industry and encourage more hotels to locate here, not just in Old Town but in other parts of the city as well.

Even if most Alexandrians think they are clear about what kind of a city they want, the report says that it is not clear to those making economic decisions for large corporations or small businesses. The report is correct. We must make some decisions about long-term economic development and marketing strategies, Euille said. Thats the only way we are going to be able to afford the services we are currently providing to our residents.

City processes
The report also recommended improvements in city processes regarding the issuance of business licenses and permits. We just arent known as a place that is business friendly, Smedberg said. It should not take two years for a business to get the permits it needs to open. I dont understand why there isnt some sort of a check list that tells business owners exactly what they need to do from start to finish. If they had such a list when they began the process, they could do everything on the list, bring the proper documents back and get their permits. Now, they are told to do five things then five more and then still five more. I understand the frustration of small business owners in particular. They dont have funds to pay attorneys to help them get through a permitting process that should be completely transparent.

New Planning Director, Farroll Hamer, has been asked to look at this issue and make recommendations. We have heard often enough that there is a problem that there must be a problem, Euille said. Both the new Director of Code Enforcement and the new Planning Director need to review these processes and design new ones that are more responsive to the people they serve. We want businesses to come to Alexandria and we understand that we have to make it easier for them to do so. 

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