The Ballston Business Improvement District held its second annual meeting last Wednesday to discuss Ballston and its future, which looks more uncertain than a year ago when the BID was created.
Held just weeks after news broke that the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters would be moving out of Ballston for offices in Alexandria and elsewhere, Ballston BID Executive Director Tina Leone said the talks focused on the positives of Ballston’s business future and recent past.
The meeting “recapped the many accomplishments made over the past year,” Leone said. “We did our research. We talked to a lot of people, including residents, tenants and brokers. What resulted was a fabulous trend that highlights connectivity, creativity and endless possibilities. This reflects the type of people that work here.”
Leone said the NSF and FWS moves didn’t come up because they had been discussed at length in the media beforehand. Leone said speculation that the moves would devastate Ballston were exaggerated, and the BID had known something like it was coming for some time.
“Overall it’s not a surprise that we’re losing government tenants. Everyone knows that this has been coming, that things were going to downsize,” Leone said. “[The NSF] was here many, many years ago and they were part of the attraction for many other organizations to come. However, we now have many other organizations here that are related to research, science, discovery and imagination. There’s no doubt we want them to stay but we’re going to recover from this and move on.”
“We’re still where minds meet,” she continued, “and a lot can happen in four years.”
Wayne Kubicki, a fiscal watchdog who serves on the Arlington County Civic Federation, is more skeptical in general of the future of the commercial real estate market in Arlington; the county is now facing one of the highest office vacancy rates in its history, and now must figure out how to replace massive government organizations that are moving out.
“The question is, if this is going to continue — and there’s every reason to believe it will — who are the private sector tenants who are going to fill all the space?” Kubicki said in an interview Monday. “I would think, and [Arlington County] board members have expressed concern, that the office market has got some choppy waters ahead.”
Monumental Sports and Enterainment owner Ted Leonsis, the majority owner of the Washington Capitals and Wizards, was the keynote speaker during the BID’s launch last year, and Leone said he inspired the Ballston LaunchPad Challenge. The Challenge is an entrepreneurial contest that drew more than 200 applicants with business plans to go through the LaunchPad mentorship program, with a winner to be chosen by a panel that includes Leonsis this November.
“What’s really fantastic about this program is it hasn’t just been about the Ballston community or Arlington, it’s really created a community that’s come in to Ballston,” Leone said. “We’ve attracted more great minds and great people that are coming in from beyond our borders.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) was this year’s featured speaker and, as one of Nextel’s early investors, brought the business acumen and entrepreneurial background the BID has been trying to promote and nurture. Warner touched on the issues facing entrepreneurship and commended the BID for its efforts in its first year of existence.
“He’s an entrepreneur, he gets it,” Leone said. “He was able to take his ideas to the next level. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”
While the BID is going to lengths to attract more and more entrepreneurs and startup businesses to Ballston, Kubicki questions whether that strategy is realistic.
“Is a startup going to be willing to pay that kind of rent?” Kubicki said. “Why would they be attracted to Ballston as opposed to Alexandria or Tysons, Montgomery or Prince George’s County or NoMa or wherever. Usually entrepreneurial startups are looking for the cheapest rent they can get. I’m not so sure, because I don’t run in those circles… but I’m a little skeptical.”
Disclosure: Ballston BID is an ARLnow.com advertiser