If the saying still holds true that past is prologue, then Hiltons decision last week to move its headquarters to Fairfax County ahead of competing locations in Alexandria, Arlington, the District or Maryland is unfortunate for Alexandria, but by no means negative.
Its not a loss for Alexandria. The nice thing is its in the region, said Charlotte Hall, vice chair for business development with the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and vice president of Potomac Riverboat Co. I think its a win-win. Yes, it wouldve been nice to have them in Alexandria, but its a heck of a lot better to have them in Fairfax than California.
In Alexandria business circles, this sentiment seems to prevail, being echoed by members of both the Chamber and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP), the city office that contacted Hilton with locations in the city that could suit the companys needs.
On the one hand it was a matter of the size of the available commercial spaces Hilton was looking for more than 100,000 square feet of space, a size that is in short supply in Alexandria but highly common in municipalities with more room, like Fairfax County.
On the other hand, the ways in which Alexandria has developed itself around Metro stations and mass transit did not mesh with what the Hilton was looking for, in spite of the citys favorable commercial real estate tax, said AEDP Vice President Stephanie Landrum.
Landrum said that in the wake of the most recent round of Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) motions, AEDP conducted a study of the citys strengths and weaknesses to find what sorts of businesses it is best suited to attract and host.
The results of the study confirmed some things that AEDP already knew, and produced a list of primary business groups to target, including associations and nonprofits, federal agencies, federal contractors, universities and boutique firms.
In each of these cases, the citys demographics and proximity to Washington, D.C., were key factors. Overall, Landrum said, the study has helped AEDP refocus its efforts to attract new businesses to Alexandria and make up for some of the commercial space turning over because of BRAC, which has seen some government-related offices leave while others have stayed.
This analysis, which is about 200 pages worth of documentation of all the strengths, weaknesses, et cetera, either validates some of the marketing campaigns we were already working on or gives us an idea of how we can target our efforts a little more effectively, Landrum said.
Now, what were working on is an actual campaign for each of those industries, Landrum added. AEDP is planning on implementing the new marketing campaigns starting in early March and is about to launch a new website within the next two weeks.
According to CoStar Property, an online real estate database, Alexandria had the second lowest vacancy rate (9.2 percent) in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia for commercial space during the fourth quarter of 2008.
Fairfax County was on the other end of the spectrum, with the highest vacancy rate (14.9 percent).
So, while there is space to be filled in Alexandria, the space available might not be appropriate for the needs of some vendors, as evidenced by the Hilton move. This is an issue that requires the city to take a stand, according to Charles Hulfish, a realtor with McEnearney Commercial real estate.
I dont think the city knows what it wants, Hulfish said. Ultimately the city needs to try to continue to attract some larger associations and corporations to mix in with our wonderful wealth of smaller businesses, corporations and retailers.
Also, they need to not forget about the western end of Alexandria, too. So much emphasis has been put on the Old Town area that they often forget about the West End.
Hall agreed that the need to give attention to and ultimately develop the West End and the waterfront is long overdue.
I think theyre both big challenges, Hall said. I dont think theres any easy way around either of them. There are going to be some healthy discussions.
Its a huge challenge but its just a matter of the city making the commitment to do it its not going to be easy, its going to be a lot of work, but I think people are ready to do it now.
Hall also understands and appreciates the new, revitalized efforts of the AEDP to attract new businesses. She said that its also a responsibility of the businesses already within the city to speak up on their own behalf and decide what they want and what they think the city needs.
The biggest problem is that [business people] dont educate the city, and thats not fair, Hall said. Its up to us, the business community to speak up and say, We need to get this trolley, we need to get these streets cleaned, we need signage.
The recent effort made to provide at least temporary signage for the more out-of-the-way shops in Old Town, Hall said, has already made a difference. While the city was going about their process, some Chamber members made it known that something was needed sooner rather than later.
Its not just the neighborhood commitments, but the overall commitment to each other, to businesses large and small, that benefit the city.
The small business community works well with the large business community, we all work well with each other and feed off of each other, Hall said.
That spirit of teamwork and action seems to be one of the citys best commodities and has the potential to contribute greatly to the citys future success.
The great opportunity we have is to use all the great connections that the people here in Alexandria already have and work as a team to bring new businesses to the city, Landrum said.