by Chris Mead
Alexandria, Va., is across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., and across a small creek, Four Mile Run, that separates the picturesque city from another one, Arlington. In turn, Arlington, home of the Arlington National Cemetery, will be the new eastern headquarters location of Amazon. Over the next dozen years, 25,000 mostly high-tech workers, with an average salary of $150,000, will stream into the buildings that Amazon is preparing first in Arlington, and possibly later in north Alexandria as well.
Joe Haggerty, the president and CEO of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, is, naturally, thrilled. The footprint of Amazon will be so large that the economic development teams in Arlington and Alexandria came up with a new name to describe the area: “National Landing.” The spot includes the Arlington neighborhoods of Pentagon City and Crystal City plus Alexandria’s Potomac Yard.
The cherry on top of Amazon’s arrival, or more accurately, another gallon of ice cream, is a $1 billion investment for a 1 million-square-foot northern Virginia campus of Virginia Tech, the state’s flagship tech university. This campus, in the Potomac Yard area of north Alexandria, will graduate 750 students each year with degrees at the master’s level or higher. Imagine the interaction between Amazon and Virginia Tech, which will be less than a mile apart in some places.
Capital of Technology of the East Coast?
Then you can throw in the three Georges: Georgetown University, George Washington University, and George Mason University. Toss in one of the leading community colleges in the nation (Northern Virginia Community College, with a mere 77,000 students hailing from 180 countries), plus the University of Maryland, Howard University, the University of the District of Columbia, Johns Hopkins, the University of Virginia (with a branch of its business school in Arlington), and others, and it’s a signal for the likely birth of the capital of technology on the U.S. East Coast.
Haggerty praised Stephen Moret, the former president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce. “He was a key factor in this whole thing,” Haggerty said. Moret, now president of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, helped put together Virginia Tech’s longstanding desire for a northern Virginia campus with Amazon’s wish for precisely that kind of tech resource.
“They [Virginia Tech] wanted a major expansion up here,” Haggerty said. “They were waiting, they were looking for the right time, and it came.”
In addition, Moret and his economic development counterparts in Alexandria (Stephanie Landrum) and Arlington (Vic Hoskins) did much more to help make the offer package attractive. “I give them great credit,” Haggerty said. “The local jurisdictions and the state really helped a lot.” Also, the state made sure that the financial incentives would be doled out not up front but “when the jobs are here,” Haggerty said.
“They were honest,” he said of the state and local people putting the package together for Amazon. “They were not afraid to see the future.”
Transportation helped, too. The incentive package for Amazon included additional funds for the building of a new Potomac Yard Metro stop. One stop away, and a simple walk for many Amazon employees, is the very busy Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. A few more stops, or a train or Metro bus ride, and the whole metro area is within reach.
Haggerty noted that the 25,000 Amazon employees can be absorbed in the D.C. area. After all, the entire metro area totals 6 million people. Counting only the new workers and not their families, the new people will constitute just 0.4 percent of the greater D.C.-Baltimore population. To look at it another way, the 25,000 new people – who will arrive gradually, moreover – will replace the 27,000 military workers who were moved to outlying regions after the September 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Still and all, there aren’t many people in northern Virginia who aren’t thinking about one word: growth. And who knows more about that word than a chamber executive?
“Everybody’s planning for expansion,” Haggerty said. This includes the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce itself.
“Our attendance is up on every single event,” the CEO said.
A group called Biznow recently held a meeting about the impact of Amazon and Virginia Tech, featuring speakers from both organizations. Normally Biznow’s attendance for a meeting is 200 to 250. For the Amazon-VT meeting: 1,000.
“The Virginia Tech thing is so big they [Amazon and Virginia Tech] are doing things together now,” Haggerty said.
The chamber finds that membership prospects are coming in steadily, sometimes with no known reason. Part of it has to be because of the excitement related to the arrival of Amazon and Virginia Tech. “It’s certainly put Alexandria on the map,” said the chamber’s COO and vice president of public policy, Maria Ciarrocchi.
The chamber has used the membership development firm known as Your Chamber Connection (North Richland Hills, Texas) to run membership events for the past two years, gaining a total of 227 new members as a result. One wonders what the next YCC campaign will be like, with the Amazon-VT impact in the wind. Haggerty’s goal is moving from the chamber’s current 800 members to 1,000 by 2020. Given the double economic miracles in his front yard, and the chamber’s embracing of growth in the community and in its own activities, he just might get there.
One of his new members, not surprisingly, is Amazon itself.
As part of the chamber’s gearing up for its brave new world, Haggerty’s board has engaged a branding company to reposition the image of the chamber, particularly as it relates to the major companies and institutions converging on Alexandria. That new branding will be ready in December.
For now, it’s still the calm before the storm. “The boom right now is going to be construction,” Haggerty said. This won’t be just for office buildings. “People are worried about affordable housing,” he said. There’s plenty to do.
“You’ve got to be looking five years down the road,” Haggerty said.
It’s a once-in-two-lifetimes opportunity. “How can you not jump on it?” he said.