Your View: City leaders need small business experience

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Your View: City leaders need small business experience
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By Jack Lichtenstein, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
The closings of many locally owned businesses in Old Town ought to be of concern to everyone in Alexandria. A great part of the appeal of living here is the availability of one-of-a-kind stores selling unique goods and services.

Jody Manor, owner of popular cafe Bittersweet, wrote in a letter to the Times (“Old Town retail is facing a troubling period,” February 18) that the practices and procedures of the Alexandria city government seem aimed at undermining such businesses. These need to be seriously addressed.

Part of the problem may be that so few of the elected officials in Alexandria’s government seem to have business experience. They may not fully understand the needs and challenges facing small businesses or the benefits that accrue to the city from them, other than as a source of tax money.

A quick look at the biographies of the mayor and city councilors on the city’s website shows that their backgrounds are rich in community and public service, but lacking in experience in the free market. As far as I can tell, only two city councilors work for businesses, one works for a government-supported corporation and the other for a lobbying firm. These are hardly representative of business as most Americans would understand it.

Community service is admirable. But those performing it should not be assumed to have knowledge, skills or attitudes that lend to understanding what it is like to have to compete; provide goods or services that people willingly choose to buy; and provide them at a price that people are willing to pay.

Government has to do none of these. But like government, businesses have to meet the very personal and real responsibilities that come with having employees.

One is like sitting in an easy chair; the other like walking a high wire.

Business not only pays its own taxes; it generates the wealth by which individuals and families are able to fill the public coffers. And business makes it possible for many to contribute to causes favored by community activists. Some understanding of this must be represented in the city’s political leadership. Perhaps it is time voters gave this serious consideration.

It soon may reach the point where small businesses simply cannot thrive in Old Town. Large national chains have the resources to pay high rents and put up with all manner of city requirements; they can meet every test and obstacle to which Alexandria subjects them and still come out profitable.

Given this trend, residents of Alexandria and visitors to Old Town will have the predictability that comes with seeing the same chain stores and having the same shopping options here as everywhere else. But will the visitors continue to come? Is it consistent with this city’s character? And is it what we really want?

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