Main Street may not be able to save itself in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. Several small to mid-sized towns and cities were already creating support networks and assistance programs before the crisis, and now they’ve taken on magnified importance. One of those is in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Located outside of Washington, D.C., Fairfax is home to Falls Church, Tysons, Reston and Vienna. Once strictly suburban, it is now transitioning to a more urban feel. “Activate Fairfax” is a relatively new department within the county’s government, coming online last October, with a focus on supporting small businesses with funding, business advice and activation of vacant spaces.
The first pilot project is a former Container Store location near Tysons, which is one of the bigger cities in the county. This site is close to Metro transportation and within walking distance of downtown. The county purchased it in 2019, recognizing an opportunity to test what Director of Economic Development Rebecca Moudry calls “placemaking.” The goal is to “activate” the location and make it a walkable destination that bolsters the surrounding businesses.
The department put out what it calls a “request for interest” rather than a “request for proposal.” That process closed on Monday (April 20). Moudry and her team have not yet had a chance to evaluate the proposals.
“We don't want to be overly prescriptive, but our goals are to attract people,” she said. “This is near an office environment and a vibrant community, and we see a chance to create an exciting and interesting destination.”
The effort has not been completely derailed by the COVID-19 crisis, but it has pressed Activate Fairfax into more of an advisory role.
“There's no doubt that the pandemic has hit every part of the economy, in particular service businesses and retail,” Moudry noted. “We have been collaborating with our partners and communicating with our coalition of small and medium-sized businesses. We've put a lot of information on the website about how to deal with this crisis. We've done a great job of communicating one-on-one with our businesses. My team is largely focused on recovery. We're trying to get our businesses to engage with counselors and show them how to apply for federal programs, which will re-emerge with new legislation.”
One example is a microloan program started by the county just last week. Principal repaid to the program will be deposited into a revolving loan fund, which will continue to feed money to small businesses during the current crisis and beyond. This fund, in addition to the Federal CARES Act, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL) and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), is designed to help small businesses like the ones in Fairfax.
As Moudry pointed out, an important component is the associated business counseling, which is part of the application process.
“Small businesses make up 94 percent of our base and account for almost one-third of jobs in our community,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay. “There are a number of federal programs available right now to help small businesses survive. Fairfax County microloan funding and supportive counseling are complementary to those programs. We recognize small businesses are critical to the well-being of our communities and to the county’s economic recovery.”
So far, the pilot program has raised the level of understanding needed for Moudry and her team. Development goals, zoning, permits and regulations have just started to be integrated. Her team is also engaging with the private sector to discuss potential development in Fairfax County.
“Activate will show growth and innovation,” she predicted. “We will be able to provide some of the ingredients that help these venues flourish. We want to see arts and culture in our neighborhoods and throughout the county, and we want to be part of the creative thinking to help Fairfax County transition out of this crisis.”
Moudry has more than 20 years of experience in economic development, community development and investment policy in both the private and public sectors. Most recently, she was a vice president at ROI Research on Investment, where she supported economic development clients. She has also served as deputy director for investment services at SelectUSA at the U.S. Department of Commerce. At the U.S. Economic Development Administration, Moudry led a program to increase investment in innovation clusters across the country. Her experience also includes positions at the District of Columbia Office for Planning and Economic Development, the International Economic Development Council and the Inter-American Development Bank.