This post first appeared in the Alexandria Times on July 14, 2016.
Entrepreneurship doesn’t flourish by happenstance. Hotbeds of innovation – like Silicon Valley, Austin, and Boulder – seem to have found the mix of characteristics and attractions that lure the country’s most innovative entrepreneurs. While those examples are known as tech hubs, they have also become hubs for creative retail and great food. Businesses of all kinds tend to be attracted to innovation hubs and places that are “Top Ten” in other categories.
Businesses like to cluster with other like businesses. Old Town has a concentration of independent boutiques and shops in part because they like to be located near other similar types of stores. New, creative restaurants often pop up near each other, like the explosion of new restaurants along the U Street Corridor in DC.
The reasons for such clustering are well known. Entrepreneurs like to be near other energetic entrepreneurs and are attracted to vibrant communities. Innovators that consistently push the envelope are attracted to welcoming communities. These are places where the threshold for startups is modest, where people are accepting of diversity, and where new ideas can be developed, launched, and refined without ridicule.
On paper, Alexandria should fare pretty well as an entrepreneurial destination. We have many winning attributes; we’re inside the beltway, we have a historic authenticity that other places seek to replicate, and we’re home to top-ranked restaurants, just to name a few. The city is also the right scale – small enough to build meaningful connections and know your neighbors, yet large enough to have the amenities and vibrancy of a big city. All those things position Alexandria to attract innovative businesses.
However, innovators are not just looking at the city on paper or in a vacuum. They’re reading media coverage of the city and, frankly, may not be getting the best impression. Creative entrepreneurs are turned off by statements such as, “We don’t want anything that attracts more people,” or, “Alexandria already has too many restaurants.” This rhetoric implies that Alexandria is not interested in opportunities to grow its tax base and be a regional destination for innovative businesses.
The harsh reality is that our local economy is either growing or declining; it does not just stop and mark time. We, as a city, need to recognize the impact of our words and our deeds and how those may be interpreted by interested businesses. We cannot afford to be seen as a city that disdains innovation.
We have organizations dedicated to strengthening entrepreneurship and providing individual support to small businesses. These include the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, Visit Alexandria, the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, the Multi-Agency Permit Center, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, and neighborhood business associations. These organizations alone are not enough; new businesses must feel the support of the entire community.
All of us have a role to play in making Alexandria an attractive destination for the most promising businesses and creative entrepreneurs who enhance our economy and quality of life. Who could be against that?