Early in its term, it looked like the all-Republican Loudoun County Board of Supervisors was trying to define itself as the business-friendly board. It seemed to be intentionally sending a message to the business community: “We are on your side.”
Just a month after taking office, the board directed county staff to stop work on developing green building standards and a Comprehensive Plan amendment on energy efficiency.
It also stopped work on a zoning ordinance amendment that would have allowed dog parks in certain areas.
“I want to prioritize those items that are going to give us more bang for the buck economic development-wise and things like that,” Algonkian District Supervisor Suzanne Volpe said, as reported in Leesburg Today. “For me I am looking at the things that are going to help us expand our business base.”
The board killed a volunteer program that removed illegal signs from along the roadways. Some saw that program as unfriendly to businesses that use signs to advertise illegally in the public right-of-way.
During the budget process, the board added three “salesmen” to the Department of Economic Development and expanded the department’s budget by more than half a million dollars, even while killing popular programs like the Drug Court and Master Gardeners, and effectively denying a pay increase for the county workforce.
Board members talked a lot about “core government services,” and they made it clear that they placed economic development squarely in the core.
Now the board is sending a very different message to the business community, but this one appears to be unintentional.
The proposed extension of Metrorail into Loudoun is the biggest economic development opportunity to present itself to Loudoun County in many years, and the supposedly “pro-business” board has inexplicably been unable to embrace it.
A majority of the board has found one problem after another with the project, and has all but ignored the potential benefits of this investment in transportation infrastructure.
The business community is solidly in favor of the project. During an input session on June 4, it was striking that every business-related organization in the county strongly supported extension of the Silver Line into Loudoun. The Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce, Visit Loudoun and the Dulles Area Association of Realtors all lined up to speak in favor of the project.
If this isn’t a project that will promote economic development, then what is?
An executive in the county’s Department of Economic Development once told me that economic development can essentially be defined as adding jobs – and not just any jobs.
Some jobs will come just because of the residential development that will occur no matter what the board does, such as jobs in retail stores, banks and restaurants. Schools and other public services will be needed. The county does not need to try as hard to attract those kinds of jobs because they will eventually come anyway.
What economic development officials most want to attract are businesses that bring lots of highly paid, professional employees to the county.
Among the county’s biggest economic development successes over the past two decades have been the arrival of AOL, WorldCom/UUNET (now part of Verizon), and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) – businesses that not only brought lots of high-paying jobs but also attracted other businesses to the area.
If the county wants to attract more businesses like these, it needs to show that it is forward-thinking. It needs to show that Loudoun County is an attractive place for young professionals. It needs to demonstrate that it is serious about solving its transportation problems.
Clogged roads and an inadequate public transit system will eclipse all the talk in the world about Loudoun County being open for business.
For all we know, the county might be pursuing the next AOL or HHMI right now. What must those company executives be thinking, as they watch the stream of fault-finding about the Metrorail project coming from a majority of board members?
By dithering over a proposed project that just about any other jurisdiction would kill for, the board is sending a message to businesses that it does not understand what they need, and that it is not listening to what they say. It is telling the world that it doesn’t understand the seriousness of the county’s transportation deficiencies.
It is an inexplicable message to be coming from an all-Republican board that set out to be business-friendly, and that elevated economic development above almost every other priority.
It is simply mind boggling.