By Erich Wagner (File photo)
When Dak Hardwick joined the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce to lead its government relations committee earlier this year, he noticed one problem with the organization’s lobbying efforts: they happened at the wrong time.
“In order to drive an agenda, you have to get inside the decision-making cycles, and when I took over, the legislative agenda was done very well, but it was completely missing the decision-making timeline,” Hardwick said, referring to the chamber’s traditional January agenda roll-out. “I said: We have to accelerate this, we have to get this in front of [officials] sooner so they have the opportunity to respond, prepare and take actions for things this year.”
Under Hardwick’s leadership, the chamber released its 2015 legislative agenda earlier this month. The agenda came with much fanfare — the chamber made an event out of the release, and used it to tease its Business Competitive Summit, scheduled for November 3.
That strategy addressed another problem with the old process: a lack of exposure.
“It began to dawn on us that maybe we were talking to ourselves and not communicating it as well as we wished to, to the rest of the world,” said chamber CEO John Long. “We got it to city council and various elected officials, but … we were not promoting it and creating the visibility that was needed for a document of this kind.”
Although the document is broken up into five categories, from transportation to tax reform, the centerpiece of the business organization’s lobbying is Potomac Yard. Hardwick said the proposed Metro station is key to everything from development to fixing the city’s tax base, which currently relies heavily on residential property taxes.
“Potomac Yard Metro is the single largest economic development tool the city has ever had in its entire history, and we have to take advantage of that opportunity,” Hardwick said. “It just makes good sense. If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, we’re going to continue to ask individual property owners, residential property owners to foot the bill to run the city.
“We must rebalance the base and it starts with public investment in public infrastructure to drive private development and private growth.”
Another priority for the chamber is finding ways to streamline the permitting and regulations processes for businesses. Long said he hopes next month’s business summit — which will feature city officials helping business owners who have faced difficulties — will spark a lasting partnership between city staff and businesses.
“One of the things I hope to be able to do is that this will help create an opportunity for us to be sort of an ombudsman, the contact person for someone who comes and talks about their challenges,” Long said. “We can say, ‘Here’s who you can contact to make that call.’ … We can be the translator between the business and the municipality.”
While building a Metro station at Potomac Yard would provide a long-term solution to the city’s tax base woes, the chamber argues more needs to be done to promote short-term business growth, specifically business tax reform.
Long said city officials must pursue lowering the cost of business licenses to a level lower than in surrounding jurisdictions, and look into tax incentives to attract organizations looking to relocate.
“You need the business community to be here, and if you don’t, you’ll wake up some day and we’re just going to be a neighborhood of D.C., where people live here and jump on the Metro to go to work and then come home,” he said. “We need incentives and changes made on the [business license] tax, and that’s how you grow the community.”