Falls Church Mayor David Tarter, City Manager Wyatt Shields and a select group of key economic development figures from the City had an extensive exchange with Virginia’s Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball and members of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) this week, and Shields told the News-Press afterwards that he was heartened by what transpired.
“We are thankful for the state’s outreach to us to learn of our economic development issues. These folks can be very instrumental in helping to streamline the permitting process for us, sending prospective corporate tenants to occupy our new office space, and working through the usually complicated process of financing for affordable housing projects,” Shields said.
The two-hour session that also included leaders from the nearby, and similarly-sized City of Fairfax, focused on the issues of workforce development, transportation and transit, and affordable housing.
Mayor David Meyer of the City of Fairfax quipped that his city and Falls Church “share a common property line,” being I-66, though a half-dozen miles apart. Both cities share the challenges of “economies of scale,” he said, and have highly-educated and well-paid populations.
But Secretary Ball stressed the importance of other commonalities of the two jurisdictions that from his standpoint in Richmond “no one else in the state has.”
They are the “unique sense of community” that the smaller jurisdictions share in the midst of a booming urban environment. “You are differentiated from the broader region with a small-city livability. Don’t lose that sense of identity. You are blessed to have things that no one else in the state has,” he said.
Falls Church’s Director of Development Services Jim Snyder chimed in that “small cities are key to the character of the state. People do things differently in smaller communities.” The City’s Economic Development Authority chair Mike Novotny cited the example that for smaller cities, sometimes “slower is good, as far as traffic flows go.”
Snyder said that “sometimes it is a struggle to get a ‘yes’ from the Virginia Department of Transportation,” and while not identifying the specific proposed project, he was clearly referring to the effort by the City to get VDOT approval for adding a left-turn capability for southbound traffic in the middle of the 100 block of N. Washington to facilitate access to Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Argia’s Restaurant, especially as the Insight Property Group’s major 2.3 acre Broad at Washington project gets underway next door.
Secretary Ball said that his office can’t mandate action by VDOT, but his office is just down the hall from VDOT’s, and certainly a conversation can help.
“We’re pushing hard to change mindsets in Richmond,” he said.
Snyder suggested that things like bundling funds can help to get more done for less.
Mayor Tarter stated that “creating value” is the key challenge, and “we face headwinds based on our size,” adding, “For us, economic development is foremost to keep the engine of sustainability going.”
“We have a great need for economic development,” he added, noting the positive impact of something like the new Harris-Teeter downtown “where half the population of the city can walk to it.” The replacement of a sprawling two-story high school with a new one that is a more vertical five stories is freeing up 10 acres in a prime location for economic development, he said, and the City would love to have a Fortune 500 company locate its headquarters there.
He suggested that the state may also be able to help facilitate a conversation with the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech about the future of their shared graduate center site right there.
On affordable housing, Ball said the group “could spend the whole day on that subject alone.”
Most of Fairfax City’s 400 full-time-equivalent police department employees can’t afford to live in that city, Mayor Meyer said, and it was cited that there are 30,000 unmet needs in housing in the region.
“We need state assistance to preserve older affordable housing,” Tarter added. “This is a regional problem.”
Ball asked rhetorically, “What are Austin (Texas) and Raleigh (North Carolina) doing that we’re not to maintain affordability for their workforces?”
“Our concern has to be that we’re not going to have the people to do the work in this region if the ‘skill gap’ between a workforce and its lack of affordable housing isn’t addressed,” Snyder said.
Meyer noted that by 2043, the nation will no longer have any single majority demographic. “We’ve been undergoing major demographic shifts but our values are still the same,” Tarter said.
It was suggested that a “Small Cities Initiative” might help to work better in tandem and develop, for example, procurement strategies.
In addition to Ball, the state’s Commerce and Trade office was represented by five others, and the VEDP was represented by six officials.
From the City of Falls Church were Tarter, Shields, Snyder, Novotny, Robert Young, vice chair of the EDA, and Becky Witsman of the City’s Economic Development Office.