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Alexandria's Tomorrow: History vs. Economics

City's date with history: past and future.

However the final report on the economic future of the city, due this fall, tracks the preliminary one, which would seem to be a reasonable assumption, it will address an array of economic choices while practically ignoring two vital ones that have served Alexandria well for the past four decades -- historic preservation and quality of residency.

Of the money, by the money and for the money shall be the sustaining goal of Alexandria in the 21st century. That could be the theme of the Mayor's Economic Sustainability Work Group recommendations, as presented to City Council during a June 12 briefing session.

Although only a preliminary report — as vehemently emphasized by Chairman Nigel Morris, co-founder of Capital One — the report places its major emphasis on how to correct the economic problems of the city while paying scant attention to the very thing that makes Alexandria "Alexandria": its historic significance and the preservation of that significance.

"This is meant to be a discussion document, not the final report. We are all vested in this either because of where we live or where we work," Morris told City Council in his opening remarks.

"This document speaks to where we [Alexandria] are. There is something here for all of us not to like. It's an equal opportunity document," he said.

"This City needs to develop ways to make decisions based on economic facts. Services have increased to match the escalation in tax revenue income. But the City has not added any jobs in the last seven years. We have not done a good job in this area," Morris said.

Prior to Morris' presentation, Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille told Council members, "This is not the final report. This preliminary report is designed to keep us on track." The final report of the Work Group is scheduled to be presented to City Council this Fall.

ALTHOUGH HISTORIC PRESERVATION is not usually thought of in economic terms it is basically the lifeblood of Alexandria. It is not only the tourism draw but also why many organizations choose to locate here. It is what makes Alexandria more than just another dot on the ever expanding map of the Greater Washington Metropolitan Region.

In addition to Morris, other members of the Work Group are: James Butler, consultant; Lavern Chatman, NoVA Urban League; Stephen Fuller, regional economist; Dennis Garcia, Potomac Management Corp.; Charlotte Hall, Potomac Riverboat Co.; Mark Kingston, X10 Capital Management Group; Gerg Leisch, Delta Associates, Inc.; John Meagher, former U.S. Treasury Department official; and Lonnie Rich, former City Council member and past president, Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.

The group was established by Euille in June 2006 following an Economic Summit in January of that same year. Its charge was primarily to suggests ways for Alexandria to improve its economic viability as a means of prospering in the 21st century.

THE PRELIMINARY REPORT starts with "Alexandria's Economic Vision." It is comprised of five basic goals:

- Establishment and preservation of a 21st century, knowledge based, creative class, diverse community with a high quality of life.

- A place where businesses locate and grow

- A place where planning and land use encourage smart fiscal practices with historic preservation.

- Where the City government is responsive to all.

- Where taxes generated by commercial activities fund community needs and help reduce taxes paid by residents and local businesses.

That is followed by the group's "Key Recommendations":

- Re-balance the real estate tax base to its previous status of 50 percent commercial and 50 percent residential. Residential real estate taxes now provide 31.7 percent of the tax base while commercial real estate pays only 22 percent.

- Establish employment growth targets reflecting a mix that favors an increasing share of higher paying jobs across all sectors. Although unemployment is low, only 2.2 percent, job growth has been stagnant "during the recent boom."

- Make economics part of the land use decision process. The group maintains that the Special Use Permit process and the controls on historic preservation in the City's historic districts discourage business relocation and expansion.

- Expand business retention and recruitment efforts. This calls for greatly expanding the City's self-marketing and a total reorganization of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP).

- Capture the full economic development potential of the City's Metrorail Stations. They view these resources as severely underutilized and in several cases misnamed thereby causing more confusion than convenience.

- Redevelop Landmark Mall into a major economic center. Although this has been not only suggested but also actively explored prior to the Work Group's creation they view it as a plausible avenue of economic revitalization but seem to ignore the overall land use dimensions of the site coupled with its sociological factors.

- Create a world class waterfront. This takes on a myriad of Alexandria flash points while offering little in practical solutions.

- Increase the economic benefits generated by the City's visitor industry. Here a host of opportunities abound coupled with an equal host of pitfalls that could undermine the very essence of the Alexandria experience for residents and visitors alike.

- Restructure economic development functions. According to the report, "The structure and execution of economic development has been defused and has not led to the optimal economic development results." They call for "significant changes."

- Establish a positive City reputation throughout the regional business community. This is where land use and historic preservation protections butt up against pure economic pressure and desire.

EACH OF THESE and all of these will play a significant role not only in determining the essence of 21st century Alexandria but also in the City's decision-making priorities and its ultimate identity. What is Alexandria and who is Alexandria can play as much a defining role on the City's economic sustainability as the money/development element.

Economic characteristics identified by the Work Group and details of their primary issues will be covered in the next two parts of this series.