Bribing Biz is the Old Economic Development. Building Bike Infrastructure is the New Way.

It didn’t feel right when I heard via the Washington Business Journal that Arlington County, Virginia paid energy company Opower $2M to remain and not move away (Opower to Remain In Arlington, February 8, 2016; Daniel J. Sernovitz). This goes against years of policy of not paying companies in money or tax breaks to stay or come to the County. Arlington had always refused to play the old economic development game of attracting and retaining companies by essentially bribing them. If a company didn’t recognize the jurisdiction’s bona fides of proximity to the capital, great schools, great transportation and a young and educated work force than were they a good fit anyway? With a growing vacancy rate perhaps times are changing.

But could the County have gone another way? Word on the street was Opower’s young Millennial staff was looking for, amongst other things, a more bike-friendly place and the vibrancy that brings to place making.

From Pittsburgh to Chicago, from Salt Lake to Austin, and places like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Indianapolis, the District and many more, leaders are increasingly fighting the economic development battle by building bike infrastructure which attracts Millenials, and the companies that want them.

What if, instead of sending $2M to Opower to stay, that money was invested in a network of protected bike lanes, Portland style bike corral parking in retail areas and more bikeshare. Imagine the result. Way more people biking and even more vibrant places as a result. Research is increasingly showing THAT’S how cities are competing to attract and retain economic development.

So yes it’s good Opower is staying. But instead of congratulating Arlington for joining the rat race of throwing money after a hot company, perhaps we should ask their leaders why their priority isn’t in doing more of the thing that attracts and retains those companies instead. That would have been a wiser and more cost effective investment in the future.

As a former employee who LOVES my old home, I was very disappointed in this action. I hope in the future, the County’s leaders instead push for more investing in the bike infrastructure that will attract and retain the brightest companies. That’s win-win.

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