By Bill Reagan
Entrepreneurship doesn’t flourish by happenstance. Hotbeds of innovation — like Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas and Boulder, Colo. — seem to have found the mix of characteristics and attractions that lure the country’s most innovative entrepreneurs.
While those examples are known as tech hubs, they also have become hubs for creative great food. Businesses of all kinds tend to be attracted to innovation hubs and places that are Top Ten in other categories.
Businesses like to cluster with similar businesses. Old Town has a concentration of independent boutiques and shops in part because they like to be located near similar types of stores. New, creative restaurants often pop up near one another, like the explosion of new restaurants along the U Street Corridor in D.C.
The reasons for such clustering are well known. Entrepreneurs like to be near other energetic entrepreneurs and are attracted to vibrant communities. Innovators that consistently push the envelope are attracted to welcoming communities. These are places where the threshold for startups is modest, where people are accepting of diversity, and where new ideas can be developed, launched and refined without ridicule.
On paper, Alexandria should fare pretty well as an entrepreneurial destination. We have many winning attributes: we’re inside the Capital Beltway, we have a historic authenticity that other places seek to replicate, and we’re home to top-ranked restaurants, just to name a few.
The city is also the right scale — small enough to build meaningful connections and know your neighbors, yet large enough to have the amenities and vibrancy of a big city. All those things position Alexandria to attract innovative businesses.
But innovators are not looking at the city on paper or in a vacuum. They’re reading media coverage of the city and, frankly, may not be getting the best impression. Creative entrepreneurs are turned off by statements such as, “We don’t want anything that attracts more people,” or, “Alexandria already has too many restaurants.” This rhetoric implies that Alexandria is not interested in opportunities to grow its tax base and become a regional destination for innovative businesses.
The harsh reality is that our local economy is either growing or declining; it does not just stop and mark time. We, as a city, need to recognize the impact of our words and deeds, and how those may be interpreted by interested businesses. We cannot afford to be seen as a city disdainful of innovation.
We have organizations dedicated to strengthening entrepreneurship and providing individual support to small businesses. These include the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, Visit Alexandria, the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, the Multi-Agency Permit Center, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, and neighborhood business associations. But these organizations alone are not enough; new businesses must feel the support of the entire community.
All of us have a role to play in making Alexandria an attractive destination for the most promising businesses and creative entrepreneurs who enhance our economy and quality of life. Who could be against that?
The writer is the executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center.