The 23 small-business executives invited by the Loudoun County government to vent their concerns seemed, at first, to have little in common.
At one table, there was the owner of a new preschool in Leesburg and the president of a well-established brewery in Ashburn. At another, there was the president of a construction company in Purcellville and the owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Middleburg.
But with county officials looking on Monday afternoon, members of this eclectic group voiced many of the same concerns: soaring health care premiums, the difficulty of finding workers who can afford to live in the county and -- again and again -- the traffic congestion that is costing their businesses time and money.
"The roads are getting more clogged all the time," said Robert Lauten, president of Lauten Construction Co. in Purcellville.
"It's taking our drivers two hours to get from Sterling to D.C. in the morning," said Kristina Bouweri, owner of Sterling-based Reston Limousine. "The traffic is very hurtful to our business."
"I don't know what's so hard about synchronizing lights," said George Boras, president of Avenge Inc., a Sterling-based aviation-consulting firm.
The three-hour forum at America Online Inc. headquarters in Dulles was sponsored by the Loudoun Board of Supervisors and the county's economic development department. The idea was to get inside the heads of small-business executives and look for solutions to their most pressing needs.
Board Chairman Scott K. York (I-At Large) said in an interview after the session that the issues are as familiar as they are important.
"The overarching themes that stuck with me are the same ones we've been grappling with for many years, particularly with transportation," York said. "Obviously, for employees to get in and out -- that's not just an issue in the Loudoun region, that's a Northern Virginia issue. We really have to have a debate, because you can't say we want improvements but not raise the revenue to be able to put these improvements in place."
Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) opened the forum by reminding participants that 85 percent of Loudoun's businesses have fewer than 25 employees. But small should not mean disadvantaged, she said.
"Today you might have a bright idea, tomorrow it turns into a small business and, heck, next year you might be the next AOL," Waters said.
She encouraged the executives to speak their minds. And they did, first before the full group, then in smaller breakout sessions.
Those soaring health care premiums?
Don't get Michael McGuinness, of the new Goddard preschool in Leesburg, started.
"The final premium we ended up paying was probably 50 percent higher than the quote," he said.
Jerry Bailey, president of Old Dominion Brewing Co. in Ashburn, said he had to reduce employee benefits to keep premiums down. And cutting benefits, he said, is "not nice to do to people."
Some executives said they had trouble navigating the county's zoning restrictions. Others spoke of challenges finding suitable office, retail or warehouse space, and many complained there isn't a ready-made workforce for their businesses in Loudoun, partly because it's too expensive to live there.
"Probably 90 percent of our work is Loudoun County and Fairfax County," said Keith Whitener, president of Milestone Construction Services Inc. in Sterling. Yet only "25 percent of our workforce comes from those two counties due to the cost of living," he said.
"Our biggest problem is that 50 percent of our employees have a difficult time finding affordable housing," said Joe Travez, president of Prototype Productions, a defense contractor in Ashburn.
There's a problem with "affordable housing at all levels, not just at lower-level jobs," said Scott Hamberger, vice president of Fortessa Inc., a Sterling-based tableware designer, developer and marketer. "We are competing to bring people in from other areas of the country."
"Hiring and retaining employees has been a huge challenge," said Bouweri, of Reston Limousine. "Seventy-five percent of our employees come from Maryland and D.C. They can't afford to live here."
Going head-to-head against large corporations to recruit workers also has been a challenge, she said.
"I have trouble competing against AOL, Exxon Mobil, Northrop Grumman and all of those other companies in the Dulles corridor," Bouweri said. "We find that we have to pay our people very well, and we have to offer them great benefits to keep them."
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors' economic development committee will review the issues raised at the forum "and see if there are any actions they can take," said Dorri Morin, the county's business ambassador, who handles economic development issues.
Action surely needs to be taken on the traffic problem, York said.
"The question is not whether we need more improvements. The question is: 'How are we going to pay for it?' " he said. "And we have to make it happen, or we're going to come to a grinding halt. Because we fear there may be employers who will just say: 'Enough is enough. We can't get our people in and out. Let's just go elsewhere where we can make that happen.' "