Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Is there such a thing as Arlington exceptionalism?

Last week, Bloomberg BusinessWeek named us the second best “city” in America (the editors knew we’re actually a county, so we’ll waive that point).

And the exceptionalism vibe was in full flower during a stimulating talk given Sept. 14 by Terry Holzheimer, the director of Arlington Economic Development, who made no bones about us being hot stuff in his talk to a receptive crowd of banqueters at the Committee of 100.

The key boasts seem to be that two-thirds of Arlington’s population of 206,405 holds a college degree, our median income level of is a hefty $93,806, that we have phenomenally low unemployment (4.2 percent as of July) and relatively few home foreclosures.

“Arlington is the epicenter of scientific research for the defense and homeland security industries,” the county website states matter-of-factly.

Our well-educated hiring pool, said Holzheimer as he pointed to convincing charts on a screen, is the reason major employers such as the Corporate Executive Board and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency pitched their tents here. (DARPA’s coming new building on Randolph Street, he added, will be among the first urban government buildings to be built in full compliance with current security specifications.)

In the office construction and rental sweepstakes, “We beat the pants off everyone in the region, and we ate Fairfax County’s lunch,” Holzheimer said. “Ninety-six percent of Northern Virginia office construction is taking place in Arlington.”

In retail space, Arlington delivers 300,000 new square feet for shop-keepers every year, the equivalent of a new shopping center annually.

The Great Recession, to be sure, imposed a soft market in housing. “But Arlington will do fine,” he said. “Our median home prices are up there with New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.” The condo market, despite the wishes of some young aspiring owners awaiting fire-sale prices, has not crashed.

Environmentalists can point with pride to the claim that Arlington has double the green buildings of any other county in the region.

The massive federal workforce moves now taking place under the Base Realignment and Closure commission have been “serious but manageable,” he says. They caused nowhere near the expected disruption in Rosslyn and Crystal City, both of which are on their way to renovations and promising new tenants.

Arlington has completed 70 percent of its 30-year plan to steer commercial and transport development along its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

In schools, the arts and general livability, goes Holzheimer’s spiel, “We’ve outperformed everyone the region, probably everyone in the country.”

The future, of course, carries risks. Holzheimer mentions the fact that Arlington could be a terrorist target (the Pentagon on 9/11); the extension of Metro to Tysons Corner will rejigger commercial competition; the county is dependent on the feds for contracts and tenants; and our mobile population is changing demographically (youth! minorities!); affordable housing is threatened.

But Arlington can adapt. Its marketing strategy, Holzheimer says, spurns the “dogs by the lake” homey images many jurisdictions hoke up in their self-promoting videos. Instead, Arlington accentuates “brainpower.”

With perhaps a touch of insolence, I asked Arlington’s economic development guru if his counterparts in Falls Church, Fairfax and Alexandria would agree with his “We’re No. 1!” assertions. (Is there talk of Falls Church exceptionalism? I was wondering.)

“I’ve got the data,” Holzheimer said. “Research firms don’t lie.”

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]