Entrepreneurship doesn’t flourish by happenstance. Centers of innovation – like Silicon Valley in California; Austin, Texas and Seattle, Washington – seem to have found the mix of characteristics and attractions that lure the country’s most innovative entrepreneurs. Even though they are known as tech hubs, these examples have also become hubs for creative retail and 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 other like businesses. Old Town has a concentration of independent boutiques and shops in part because they like to be located near other similar types of stores. New, creative restaurants often pop up near each other, like the explosion of new eateries along U Street and around Union Market 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, people are accepting of diversity and new ideas can be developed, launched and refined without ridicule.
Alexandria should fare pretty well as an entrepreneurial destination. We have many winning attributes. We’re inside the beltway. We have historic authenticity that other places try to replicate. And we’re already a top-rated tourist destination, 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 be attractive to innovative businesses.
However, innovators are not just looking at the city 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 sentiments like, “We don’t want anything that attracts more people,” or, “Alexandria already has too many restaurants.” This rhetoric implies that Alexandria is not welcoming to opportunities to grow its tax base and be a destination for innovative businesses.
The harsh reality is that our local economy is either growing or declining. Economies don’t just mark time, especially in an era of dramatic market shifts. We, as a city, need to recognize the impact of our words and our deeds and how they might be interpreted by entrepreneurs evaluating Alexandria as an option. We cannot afford to be seen as a city that has disdain for innovation.
Our city would become very different if we cease to nurture a vibrant small business community. To maximize our potential, we must constantly focus on ways to retain and attract the brightest and best small businesses that will add value, build diversity and stimulate vitality.
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 as we enter Small Business Month?
The writer is the executive director of Alexandria’s Small Business Development Center