In the past decade, Northern Virginia has experienced a job boom — hundreds of thousands of new jobs in technology, homeland security and defense contracting, plus the lobbyists and lawyers who serve them.
But Alexandria has been left out. Even with the addition of thousand of new jobs at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the city’s payroll job statistics have remained flat lined and status quo.
“I think a lot of people were waiting to see what was going to happen with the Carlyle development,” said Alexandria resident Lisa Fowler, a researcher at the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. “With the movement of the Patent and Trademark Office to Alexandria, it was expected that other businesses would follow. But that hasn’t happened.”
It’s a trend that has been vexing city leaders since the City Council’s fall retreat, when Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks was giving a PowerPoint presentation in the cafeteria of Tucker Elementary School. Then it came up again at the Masonic Temple earlier this month, when the chairman of a blue-ribbon panel investigating the city’s economic health used a graphic comparing regional and local job growth in his PowerPoint presentation — a slide that presenter and Capital One co-founder Nigel Morris told attendees to “burn into their brain.”
But Fowler said that city leaders should be prepared to broaden the discussion.
“This idea of cities and counties wanting to attract jobs is really only one side of the picture,” she said. “If you can make Alexandria a more attractive place to live, you’re also going to make Alexandria a more attractive place to locate.”
She said that the city often loses working parents who are in their 30s and 40s — young professionals with small children. Although Alexandria’s school system has seen dramatic improvement in recent years, the trend that worries her the most is loss of this high-demand demographic. It’s a situation that’s only exacerbated, she said, by the high cost of living and an astronomical housing market.
“There are neighborhoods in Alexandria where people can find a relatively affordable place to live,” said Fowler. “But I’m not sure the city has marketed that.”
BRANDING THE CITY has become a parlor game in Alexandria. The old “fun side” mentality has become a faded relic, like Crystal Pepsi or New Coke. It’s lost its fizzle so much that Mayor Bill Euille recently told members of the city’s marketing department he thought it was time to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better one. But what will replace “fun side”? Will it attract more residents or more jobs?
“That’s a question that the city has got to ask itself,” said Morris, whose spirited discussion of the problem raised eyebrows at the Masonic Temple. “We need clear idea of what mix we want between commercial and residential.”
Some say that attracting more commercial density is the best way to combat City Hall’s increasing reliance on residential taxpayers, who form the number-one source of revenue for the city’s coffers. Many people in the business community oppose zoning decisions that convert commercial buildings for residential use, and they would like to see the pendulum swing toward more commercial development. The result would be more revenue for the city — a phenomenon that would reduce the burden placed on residential property taxpayers.
“You get a lot more bang for your buck with commercial development,” said Lonnie Rich, former Chamber of Commerce chairman and member of the blue-ribbon economic panel. “Residential development carries a price tag, which is the services. You don’t have that with commercial development.”
CITY LEADERS SAY that Alexandria has attracted thousands of new jobs. The problem is on the other side of the ledger book, which shows jobs vacating the ailing Landmark Mall and leaving military installations. Jinks, said that Landmark Mall has lost hundreds of jobs in the past few years.
“When you have less sales volume you don’t need to employ as many people,” said Jinks. “Almost all of the storefronts at Landmark Mall have businesses in them but the level of sales is down and so the need for salesmen and other employees is down.”
While companies have been flooding the market with new jobs in Tysons Corner and the Dulles area, Alexandria has found itself missing out on the boom. Jinks said one of the biggest problems is size, with employers wanting large office floorplans that are conveniently located to other similar businesses. Another problem is the transportation headaches created by lingering construction at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the Springfield Interchange. One potential solution, Jinks said, is finding a way to fill the city’s empty office space.
“In the coming year, we will be focusing on economic development activities related to filling our office buildings,” he said. “Now that the Springfield interchange is almost done and the Wilson Bridge has better access ramps, the focus is going to be on finding places for additional offices and jobs — particularly in the Eisenhower Valley.”