Sun Gazette: At State of County Speech, Zimmerman Touts Community Investment Print
Created: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 5:43 AM EDT


Arlington owes its economic success to infrastructure investments made decades ago and similar undertakings are needed now to ensure the county's long-term vitality, County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said during his "State of the County" address June 21.

"Where the county will be five years from now, 10 years from now, 25 years from now, depends on the things we do - or don't do - today," he said. "These are choices you don't get back."

Zimmerman, who spoke at the Crystal City Marriott at an event sponsored by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and Leadership Arlington, said public-sector spending enables private-sector prosperity.

While China invests 9 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure and Europe spends about 6 percent, the United States invests only 1.5 percent of its GDP on such vital projects, Zimmerman said. U.S. officials are mired in a "we can't afford it" mind set, he said.

"The rest of the world is preparing for the future," Zimmerman said. "They're building roads, they're building high-speed intercity rail, they're investing in subways and surface trams. They're developing new, clean energy systems. They are enhancing the future productivity of their economies."

An Arlington resident since 1979, Zimmerman first was elected to the County Board in 1996. He has been a strong advocate for bicyclist and pedestrian safety, open space, transportation and land-use planning.

"The state of our county is very good," Zimmerman told the audience. Despite the recession, Arlington has held Virginia's lowest unemployment rate for 47 straight months and had 6.6-percent job growth over the past three years, he said.

Arlington continues to enjoy excellent real estate values and low taxes and was ranked fourth by the Associated Press on its list of U.S. communities that are least stressed economically, Zimmerman said.The county's crime rate is low and its population is diverse, healthy and well-educated, he said.

"All indications are that we are well-positioned for the future," Zimmerman said. "Demand is both strong and growing for transit-accessible, walkable urban communities."

County officials recently have adopted development goals for Crystal City and the East Falls Church areas, continue to chart the future of the Columbia Pike corridor, and are getting ready to update the county's Rosslyn plan, he said.

The county has many projects in the pipeline, but its economic vitality is not tied just to buildings and development, Zimmerman said. Arlington needs small businesses to succeed and should ensure the county's regulations are efficient, reasonably applied and easy to comply with, he said.

Zimmerman has begun an initiative to examine how the county treats its small businesses and receive input from those most affected by the process.

Based on business owners' comments so far, the county needs to improve its communications, informational offerings, administrative practices and regulatory policies, he said.

"We heard again and again a real frustration with the lack of centrality and consistency of information," Zimmerman said. "Too many people have had the experience of thinking they've done what's necessary, only to find that there is yet another application to file, another office to visit, that they didn't know about."

County officials are formulating an action plan to deal with these concerns and are revamping the county's sign ordinance, Zimmerman said. The County Board expects to receive a draft of the new sign ordinance in July and Zimmerman said he hopes to have a version ready for board action by year's end.

"I am looking for an ordinance that, at a minimum, ends the prohibition on A-frame signs and relaxes restrictions on the umbrellas used for sidewalk seating," he said.

Zimmerman pledged continued support for arts in the county, noting that Shirlington's successful development was due in part to Signature Theatre's new facility.

"I would be for funding of the arts, even if all it was was a cultural amenity, because I think it's something worth having," he said.

Arlington Chamber of Commerce president Rich Doud said he was heartened by Zimmerman's commitment to reducing burdens for local businesses.

"Often, we've had messages in this same situation where there wasn't a word about business the whole time, so this is absolutely great," Doud said. "I thought his talk today was very comprehensive and gave us some real reasons for optimism."

Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th) said Zimmerman did a "fantastic job" and added that Arlington officials will continue to try to nurture their relationship with the General Assembly.

Even without the dispute over high-occupancy toll lanes on Interstate 395, there would be animosity between the county and state legislators, Hope said.

"There always is this tension with Arlington, always has been, just because of who we are," he said. "It's political."

Terry Holzheimer, director of Arlington Economic Development, agreed with Zimmerman that Arlington officials' sound decisions 30 years ago enabled the county's current success.

"I think you plan your way out of difficulty," he said.