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Agency at Crossroads

Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation recruiting new executive director, awaiting budget approval

Reserve funds can only go so far. After years of Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC) tapping those reserves, those reserves are almost gone. Unless the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approves the recommended budget for SFDC, its ability to provide all the services that it currently provides will be limited.

Add to that the departure of two key players, Becky Witsman and Stephanie Landrum, and it’s apparent that SFDC will be going through some major changes in the next few months.

Key players, however, do not feel it is in jeopardy.

“I am very optimistic about SFDC’s future. There is much more yet to be done,” said Rick Neel, president of the Board of Directors.

He testified about the budget at the Board of Supervisors' budget meeting earlier this week; they should know by the end of the month if it will be approved. What they are asking for is the budget that they’ve had for the past 13 years — $142,000 — plus another $40,000 that they’ve been using from reserves. That reserve money came from a grant obtained years ago from a federal agency that no longer exists. Neel said that the reserve will be fully expended in the next fiscal year.

“The reserve fund has allowed us to continue and operate, and give a modest increase in compensation,” Neel said.

So far, all signs point to the budget being approved.

Supervisor Gerry Hyland said that he is firmly convinced that the board will support the budget for SFDC. There was a meeting last Friday to discuss the future of SFDC; another meeting will be held soon with Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman, Ken Disselkoen, regional manager for human services in Region One, and the SFDC Board. “SFDC is here to stay. We want to make sure that we can attract and keep quality people to be involved in running the organization,” Hyland said. “The job is far from done, many things that remain to be done. We need a competent staff to replace the professional and competent staff that we’ve had. I am very optimistic that we will keep the organization.”

IN THE MEANTIME, Neel and other board members are in the process of reviewing resumes for the executive director position. He hopes to start interviewing next week.

“We’re in the beginning stages of the selection process for an executive director,” Neel said. “We’re anxious to move expeditiously, but we want to make the right choice and don’t want to rush it. We have some good prospects in hand.”

They are not currently advertising for Landrum’s position; Neel said, “We are taking it one step at a time. We will hire the executive director first and then she/he can assess what they need.”

Witsman, current SFDC executive director, has taken a position with the City of Falls Church. Her last day is this Friday; she has spent the week trying to get organized to the point where someone new can come in and pick up.

This new position was an opportunity that Witsman couldn’t pass up, she said. However, she was also somewhat frustrated — and concerned — with the lack of increases and the depletion of the reserve fund. She said that attempts at fundraising — direct mail campaign, bowl-a-thon — did not increase revenues and took away from staff time.

“I’ve got to pay my bills,” she said. “SFDC hasn't even received cost of living increases.”

After 16 years with SFDC, she believes in the mission of the agency, and said, “I seriously hope that the organization continues. It needs to be here. Rick [Neel] is determined to keep it going, but they need to bring somebody in here. Rick deserves a lot of credit.”

WITSMAN SAID she knows that Hyland is supportive and wants to see it continue.

Landrum, who is working for the Economic Development Agency in Alexandria, left a few weeks ago. She also left because she found a good opportunity, but agreed that she and Becky were underpaid.

“Without the increase and something to cover cost of living expenses, it will be difficult to be able to find two professionals to keep the office as it was,” Landrum said. “They may need to reconsider who they need in the office and sacrifice some services.”

Landrum believes that the board will need to discuss what SFDC does and prioritize as to what they can and can’t do.

“Looking at the highway [Route One], it would be a shame to stop now,” Landrum said. “I think it’s important to have SFDC around.”

Neel agrees, citing the statistics that the area covered by SFDC is the largest revitalization area in Fairfax County, covering 850 properties and 650 businesses. Part of the problem, however, is that SFDC is the only organization of its kind in the county. Witsman is concerned that other parts of the county will see the budget request with the — almost 30 percent — increase and not realize how important the organization is and that the budget request is how much it has cost the organization to stay afloat.

Other areas rely on multiple county agencies to get information about investment opportunities, zoning regulations, development issues and county ordinances.

“We’re a one-stop location where investors and developers can come,” Neel said. “We need the ability that SFDC has to facilitate between investors and developers.”

Neel feels that the future for Route One is very bright, saying, “There is strong redevelopment going on. Eighteen projects are already under construction or just beginning — this amounts to a total of $424 million in new investment for the corridor.”

“SFDC represents a different niche and provides a different perspective in reviewing projects,” Landrum said. “SFDC pays a crucial role as a liaison and advocate for different projects. Without SFDC’s help and advocacy, it will take longer to do projects. Without SFDC, there is no one go-to person.”

Landrum said that developers in Fairfax County have a hard time figuring out who to call at VDOT, Virginia Power, Washington Gas and others.

“It’s hard to navigate the system. SFDC has that referral system and institutional knowledge that will be most missed if not able to continue. This makes it less risky for developers. I hope they’re able to work through it all; it would be a shame not to continue.”