Amazon in Northern Virginia: 5 Positives

The road to the Silicon Swamp is paved with gold.

1-The Future. In 2011 Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Software is Eating the World.” The eight years since Andreessen’s essay was published have served to vindicate, validate and verify the accuracy of his thesis. Yet while software eats the world, it doesn’t necessarily dine in the same old restaurants.  Car making used to be centered in Detroit. Now Silicon Valley is the new Detroit. Not only are upstarts like Tesla centered in The Valley but traditional car manufacturers are heading west too. As Andreessen noted, traditional non-technology companies all need to become software companies in order to survive. Metropolitan areas with strong software skills will attract not only technology companies but non-technology companies as well. Embrace software or be eaten by it. The future belongs to those who code.

2-Ecosystem. Silicon Valley isn’t Bentonville, Arkansas. No one company dominates Silicon valley and therein lies its enduring strength. The Valley is an economic growth machine fueled by start-ups, spin-outs, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and oceans of venture capital. The idea that NoVa’s benefits from the Amazon deal start and stop with Amazon is myopic. Talented employees will come to National Landing, work for Amazon, and then leave to start new ventures. The 25,000 Amazon jobs should be seen as a starting point rather than a final outcome. In fact, startups founded by Amazon veterans like Fugue are already operating in the area.

3-Mo’ Money. Our state and local politicians seem to find an unending stream of programs and projects that cost Virginia taxpayers more money, more money, more money. Medicaid expansion, fixing Metro, pension shortfalls, rural broadband, underfunded schools and a myriad of other “needs” will be hard to fund given Virginia’s sputtering economic growth. If the Old Dominion is going to become the progressive nirvana envisioned by some we’d better find a way to generate more economic momentum. Amazon’s 25,000 jobs and the ecosystem those jobs create will be one hell of a catalyst for NoVa being the centerpiece of the Silicon Swamp.

4-Forced cooperation. Virginia’s political elite have a well deserved reputation for incompetence and intransigence. The state’s history reads like a cautionary tale of squandered opportunities. In November 1926 Virginius Dabney wrote an article for the American Mercury entitled simply, “Virginia.”  One section of that article deals with boosterism in Richmond and includes the sentence, “In their hearts rankles the crushing realization that Atlanta’s population is 30,000 greater than Richmond’s.” In the century since the 1920 census Richmond’s population has grown by 30% while Atlanta has grown by 142%. One wonders how the River City boosters of Dabney’s day would feel if they knew the two southern cities are no longer comparable in any meaningful way. The Amazon deal is forcing the state to make long overdue changes. Virginia Tech’s decision to build a serious campus in the population center of Northern Virginia is 50 years overdue but it finally has been made.

5-Density. Northern Virginia is stuck in its awkward teenage years from a human settlement perspective. Caught between boy and man, suburb and city NoVa petulantly yearns for the good old days while simultaneously wondering how to improve its quality of life. There is only one answer – a rapid escalation of population density. The time in an area’s maturation between Mayberry and Gotham is painful. In NoVa the die is cast. The sooner Northern Virginia gets to Gotham the better.  The Amazon deal should serve as a catalyst for that flowering of urban, mixed use, walkable living.

Don Rippert