The Arlington County government is making major strides toward providing more user-friendly services to the business community, but still has a way to go, County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said at the annual “State of the County” event on June 21.
“Not that the culture was bad . . . but we’ve needed to move it into the 21st century,” Garvey said at the annual event, sponsored by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve made a start; we’re working to be more responsive.”
Garvey’s remarks, made before about 160 business and civic leaders, came a week after she pushed back a challenge from Erik Gutshall in the Democratic County Board primary. Garvey won 55 percent of the vote, and now faces largely token opposition in the Nov. 8 general election.
Since 2001, the chairs of the Arlington board – a post that rotates annually among board members – have given annual remarks to the business community. In her first outing, Garvey was upbeat.
“The state of the county is good. In fact, the state of the county is great,” she said.
That said, “we’ve got a lot of work to do, and we know it,” Garvey said. “I’m confident where we are going.”
On the plus side of the ledger, Garvey pointed to a low crime rate, good schools and a focus on the social safety net. Ongoing challenges include a commercial-vacancy rate that is “higher than we would like . . . far too high.”
The effort to fill those empty offices has caused the Arlington government to abandon its decades-old, largely hands-off, view of economic development in favor of more aggressive outreach.
“We are hustling, which is something new for Arlington,” Garvey said.
The effort appears to be bearing fruit, as Arlington in recent months has won a number of economic-development victories.
Most recently, state and county officials on June 16 announced that the county had been selected by the professional-services firm Grant Thornton LLP as the location for consolidation of its D.C.-area offices. The project will retain nearly 1,000 jobs and create about 350 more.
“We’ll be combining our area offices to create a more efficient footprint, but also the ‘workplace of the future,’” said Jamie Fowler, managing partner for the region at Grant Thornton, which rebuffed overtures from the District of Columbia aimed at landing the consolidated offices.
The economic-development victories are coming with a cost attached, however, as the Arlington government is now opening its checkbook and provide incentives for the right deals. Often, the funding is in tandem with that provided by the state government.
Garvey said Arlington endeavors to play nice with surrounding jurisdictions, rather than attempting to encroach on their economic developments. She is trying to popularize a new word – “coop-etition” – to describe the effort, and pointed to outreach efforts targeting Chinese businesses as a case where individual jurisdictions from across the region could partner effectively.
“We really emphasize, a lot, the cooperation,” Garvey said. “Working together to promote the region, not just individually.”
Garvey fielded questions that included concerns the government was focusing on large businesses, but not doing enough to recruit and retain small businesses.
She acknowledged that there are still far too many hoops for small-business owners to go through in trying to get their businesses up and running.
Garvey pointed to the efforts of former state legislator Rob Krupicka in opening a doughnut store in the Columbia Pike corridor. Krupicka was publicly critical of roadblocks put in the way of small-business owners by the Arlington government. While it was “a little hard to sit there as a board member to hear that,” Garvey acknowledged that much of the criticism had merit.
“We’re working very hard” to address concerns in the small-business community, she said.
Arlington Chamber president Kate Bates praised Garvey’s tenure an elected official, which began on the School Board and since 2012 has been on the County Board. Garvey “is a great partner to the Chamber,” Bates said.
To focus on concerns of the business community, the Chamber of Commerce in May hosted a candidate forum with Garvey, Gutshall and independent candidate Audrey Clement.
The Chamber’s “State of the County” is the second major event each year to focus on Arlington’s board chair. Leadership Arlington each January presents “Meet the Chair,” giving the office-holder an opportunity to lay out his or her priorities for the ensuing year.
Who the board chairman will be in 2017 remains an open question. If historical precedent is followed, the current vice chairman – Jay Fisette – will bump up to chairman next Jan. 1, although that is not guaranteed.
Fisette, who with 19 years of service is the most senior board member by a wide margin, also was the lone board member to openly support Gutshall’s unsuccessful effort to take out Garvey in the June 14 Democratic primary. Whether that will hurt his chances at becoming chairman next year remains an open question.