A George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis study that criticized the global reach of the Washington region was rather superficial because it failed to consider what is happening in at least one part of the region.
Several localities, including Fairfax County, have pursued economic diversity and foreign-owned businesses for some time. The Fairfax County Economic Development Authority has worked for nearly 20 years to expand the county’s economic base with companies that do not rely on federal contracting.
On the global front, the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority has offices in five important technology centers around the world: Bangalore, London, Munich, Seoul and Tel Aviv. Our representatives there act as our eyes and ears, scouring the business landscape for companies interested in expanding into U.S. markets.
We began marketing overseas in the early 1990s and hired our first overseas representative in 1997. Since 1998, the number of foreign-owned companies doing business in Fairfax County has jumped from fewer than 80 to more than 400 from nearly 50 countries. We also help local companies find export markets. These companies are drawn to the county and the region for the same reasons domestic businesses are: location, public education systems, the workforce, air service and more.
The benefits to the county include more real estate taxes, a more diversified business base and a more diverse workforce. International marketing is not inexpensive, but Fairfax sees merit in diversifying the business base. Others can benefit from similar programs, but they must invest the resources to reap the benefits.
We have worked tirelessly to promote the assets that Fairfax County has access to for global trade: large numbers of private- and public-sector customers, two airports, a highly skilled workforce, policymakers in Washington and a cosmopolitan quality of life.
The Center for Regional Analysis’s study noted that federal contracting activity in the Washington region dropped 16 percent between fiscal 2011 and 2013. This isn’t the first time that federal budget issues have taken their toll on the area, and that is why my office has worked with companies that can broaden Fairfax County’s economic base — in effect, the economic base of the Washington area — beyond federal contracting.
This year we worked with Cvent, which develops event-management software and announced it would expand by more than 400 jobs in a new Tysons Corner headquarters. In previous years we worked with the likes of Volkswagen of America, Hilton Worldwide, Bechtel and Intelsat as they sought new locations to pursue growth strategies. As with our international strategy, this work to diversify Fairfax County’s economic base will never end, but we believe we have made tremendous strides.
The study faulted Washington-area localities for not collaborating more fully to expand the region’s stature globally. For example, it cited the absence of any regional public-private development groups and the lack of collaboration to build a common identity. Yes, there are issues for which a regional approach makes great sense. Certainly transportation and environmental issues cross state lines and are being addressed collectively.
But competition among local economic development groups when it comes to pursuing company expansions and relocations is likely to continue. Companies fill office space, boost the local tax base and bring prestige to communities as they create jobs and generate wealth. In Virginia, local governments’ budgets largely come from real estate taxes. The business tax base enables local governments to provide public services while minimizing the burden for residents. We have learned through experience that no entity can well represent the economic development interests of the 24 unique localities spread through two states and the District of Columbia that have economic development programs. In this way the region is truly diverse.
The writer is president and chief executive of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.