By Chris Teale (File photo)
Officials with the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce believe the city has a great opportunity to map out its future, and the time is now to get the planning underway.
The chamber is set to begin that process with its Tomorrow’s Alexandria initiative, unveiled last week at its annual meeting by incoming board chairman Dak Hardwick and slated to launch next year.
Under the initiative, the chamber plans to spend the year hosting events and panel discussions focusing on how the city will look in 20 or 30 years, emphasizing the growth of business and Alexandria’s role in the regional economy. In addition, the chamber wants to harness the city’s continued growth for residents’ collective benefit.
“Our best days are in front of us,” Hardwick said in an interview. “One of my favorite phrases is, ‘Never be afraid of what’s on the other side of yes.’ If the city were to adopt that approach, where you say yes to things, imagine what you could have if you started to say yes to things instead of saying no. The possibilities are endless.”
The concept of Tomorrow’s Alexandria comes from the fact that the local tax base is skewed heavily toward residential taxpayers. But officials hope to regain balance with council-approved projects like Robinson Terminal South on the waterfront and The Gateway at King and Beauregard on the West End among others set to come online in the near future and feature more commercial space.
Meanwhile, the confluence of older and younger generations in more urban areas means Alexandria has great age diversity. Hardwick said the potential of all neighborhoods in the city must be harnessed, to ensure growth happens equally.
“What you’re seeing is a change in focus for the chamber, and that changing focus is noting that in order to be an organization relevant to the growth in the city and the future of the city, we have to adapt to the population that’s here,” Hardwick said. “And that population is younger, it is more diverse, it is focused on creating great spaces and sup- porting our business owners.”
Hardwick said with so many responsibilities and logistical constraints, small business owners generally cannot spare the time to testify before the planning commission or city council about topics that affect them. Instead, he said, the chamber will take on more of a role in advocating for the needs of business owners to elected officials.
The chamber’s new initiative takes into account the increasingly competitive regional economy, bolstered by the re- cent opening of the MGM National Harbor Resort and Casino in Prince George’s County, Md. Hardwick said finding a way to work in concert with other jurisdictions and keeping an eye out for potential federal government tenants will be key, as well as retaining those already in the city.
The National Science Foundation’s new headquarters is slated to open next year near the Eisenhower Avenue Metro station, but Hardwick said it is equally important to retain the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Carlyle.
Chamber officials said they will also work to keep Alexandria unique, especially given the city’s competition with the likes of the Mosaic District and Tysons Corner in nearby Fairfax County and the commercial areas of Arlington County in Northern Virginia.
“I once heard that Alexandria, in particular Old Town, is the downtown of Northern Virginia,” Hardwick said. “We have a unique offering for the rest of Northern Virginia. We have an historic downtown that is not a cookie cutter down- town. It’s made up of independent restaurateurs and retailers that are willing to take a risk, and they understand that their customer base is not only in the city of Alexandria.”
Hardwick said elected officials should view this new initiative as a challenge to be brave and make tough deci- sions. With tremendous budget constraints, including the capital needs of Alexandria City Public Schools, a slew of other city facilities and regional commitments like funding the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, there will be some difficult choices ahead.
“Our elected officials, our community leaders, our business leaders have to recognize that you can’t do all of it,” Hardwick said. “Say, ‘This is the direction that we have to go, this is what we have to do.’ Instead of being led, lead on certain issues. There are some hard choices that the community is going to have to make.”
He pointed to the chamber’s 40 Under 40 Awards, which began earlier this year to recognize young and emerging business and community leaders in the city. The chamber announced last week that nominations are open for next year’s iteration of the awards, and officials said such recognition helps empower younger people to engage with civic life.
“We are fortunate in this region to have a substantial pool of outstanding candidates and the chamber is the natural organization to recognize these individuals and all they do,” said chamber president and CEO Joe Haggerty in a statement. “Their contributions provide Alexandria with a qualitative edge in competitiveness and innovation, ensuring Tomorrow’s Alexandria will be highly diverse and successful.”
The chamber’s new initiative officially launches January 28 with an event called, “Chairman’s Voyage: To Boldly Go,” which will feature the first such discussion on the city’s future.