Northern Virginia leaders still are exulting over their capture of Amazon’s second corporate headquarters, but are grappling with the region’s transportation, education, housing and economic conundrums.
“In a relatively short period of time, we’ve started our shift away from dependence on the federal government for our economy, we’ve established our dominance in cyber-security [and] we’ve become the nation’s hub for the transmission of data,” said Terry Clower, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, at the Northern Virginia Regional Elected Leaders Summit on Aug. 26. “Our success has generated some new – and exacerbated some old – challenges.”
Amazon’s decision to locate its second headquarters in Crystal City underscored Northern Virginia’s desirability and likely will serve as a model for future regional cooperation, said Arlington County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey (D).
The incentive package served up for Amazon “charted a new course” and emphasized “infrastructure and investment in ourselves,” Dorsey said.
“It’s not about a giveaway from your general coffers, it’s about identifying an area where you could have potential revenue increases,” he said. “If it materializes, Amazon gets a piece of it, but the community gets most of it and I think that is the model hopefully that is replicated all across this country.”
Reeling in Amazon helped local leaders determine the region’s unique identity, Dorsey added.
“If we don’t utilize this moving forward, it’s a wasted investment,” he said.
“This is a wonderful example of the start of our brand,” concurred Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Penelope Gross (D-Mason).
Gross emphasized Amazon’s arrival will occur over time and not just add 25,000 more people to the region immediately. The whole region will benefit from the online mega-retailer’s new headquarters, which will be just 15 minutes from Mason District – unless it’s rush hour, she said.
“This reinforces the work we’ve been doing for a long time,” Gross said. “This is another example of the regional leadership getting together. [Amazon’s headquarters] is going to be an educational magnet, too.”
The successful recruitment of Amazon also shows that 21st-century employers go where the talent is, said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D).
“Regional cooperation is critical,” Wilson said. “When all of us work together . . . no one can beat us.”
The big challenge moving ahead will be beefing up the region’s transportation infrastructure, such as Interstates 66 and 95 and the Metrorail system, said Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart (R).
Dorsey, who since 2016 has served on the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said the agency had made significant strides in improving Metrorail customers’ experience. Metrorail is moving in the right direction, but the agency’s bus service also needs to be improved, he said.
Alexandria residents and businesses have suffered while Metrorail’s Blue and Yellow lines going through the city were closed for renovations, Wilson said. Local officials found some commuters enjoy the different transit options they have had to try during the closures, he said.
Alexandria officials also have been happy with a water-taxi service that ferries customers between the city and the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County, Wilson said. That service will be extended through December, he said.
Julie Carey, Northern Virginia bureau chief for WRC-TV, served as moderator for the panel discussion, held at Van Metre Hall on George Mason University’s Arlington campus.
Housing scarcity was on the mind of Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Phyllis Randall (D). Randall favored a regional approach in addressing the affordable-housing crunch and recommended infrastructure be put in place before the new housing units arrived.
“If we look at this county-by-county, we’re going to be in trouble,” said Randall. “If you don’t think it’s important, imagine what you’re college kids are going to do when they finish. They’re either going to be not in this area or in your basement. I want them in this area. I do not want them in my basement.”
Wilson also favored affordable-housing initiatives, provided they took into account different jurisdictions’ employment centers and transportation networks.
“We don’t want to exacerbate transportation problems,” he said. “We need to put housing in the right places . . . to meet the need.”
Fairfax County will need an estimated 60,000 more housing units in the next 15 years and county supervisors during next year’s budget season will consider dedicating 1 cent on the real-estate tax rate toward affordable-housing initiatives, Gross said.
Local governments could help affordable-housing providers by easing up on the regulations, Stewart said.
“The biggest thing government can do is get out of the way,” he said. “We need to let the private sector do its job.”
Education will play a vital role in the region’s future success, said Randall, who supported having career discussions with children starting in middle school. Not all the new jobs will require college degrees, so beefed-up vocational training and apprenticeships might be valuable, she said.
Wilson concurred, joking that his eighth-grader was asking for a “gap year” before entering ninth grade.
“It’s not just preparing kids for higher education, but making sure we’re top-notch as far as certifications,” he said.
The other panelists supported those sentiments, including Gross, who noted a local elementary school’s end-of-the-year project had students doing computer coding. Gross also urged local leaders not to focus just on high-tech employment options, but also to think of ways to help people working in service jobs.
“It’s the entire community, the entire scope of the workforce, that we need to focus on,” Gross said.
Asked whether they think another economic recession is looming, some panelists said there has been some softening in the housing market. That may not be such a bad thing, said Dorsey, whose jurisdiction now has one of the nation’s hottest housing markets.
“We could use a little cold water on things to have people step back a little,” he said.