10 Questions with AED Director Telly Tucker

Arlington Economic Development's new chief starts Jan. 13. Here's what he plans to focus on first.

Incoming AED director Telly Tucker

Earlier this month, Telly Tucker was named Arlington’s new Director of Economic Development, replacing Victor Hoskins, who left in July for a post with Fairfax County.  A Virginia native, Tucker previously held the same position in Danville, and will assume his new post in Arlington on January 13. He says he plans to live in temporary housing while deciding which Arlington neighborhood to put down roots in.  This interview has been edited for clarity.

What was your path to becoming Arlington’s Director of Economic Development?

I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. Both of my parents were lifelong educators. I went to James Madison University and majored in International Business and Spanish. When I got out of college, I had no clue what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be a teacher like my mom and dad, but you know how karma works. My first job out of college was teaching. I taught at a junior high school for three years.

How did teaching eventually lead to economic development work?

One summer, I was a counselor at a camp put on by Lynchburg’s Department of Economic Development to teach students how to start their own businesses. I really enjoyed it, and six months later, I got a job with them. After three years, I took a position with Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development, where I got to work with communities from very rural southwestern Virginia to Northern Virginia and everywhere in between. It really gave me an appreciation for how diverse Virginia’s localities are. Then I spent three years as the assistant director for economic development in James City County (the greater Williamsburg area). That was a lot about tourism development, hospitality, culture and entertainment tourism. For the last [nearly] six years I’ve been in Danville, a community characterized by the loss of legacy industries and looking to diversify its industrial base. Each place I worked offered different and diverse challenges.

What attracted you to Arlington?

One of the first things that attracted me was the amazing opportunity to be part of the integration of the Amazon project into the region. I’m looking forward to building on the momentum, but I also want to ensure that Arlington’s neighborhoods move together as one. Part of that is attracting more business, but a larger part is supporting existing businesses. I want to raise the tide for all of those businesses.

Give us your definition of economic development. What does that mean to you?

It’s this process by which communities create wealth, jobs, and raise the overall economic standard of a city, county or region. There are different strategies. The most common are business attraction, retention, expansion, workforce development, tourism, hospitality, real estate revitalization. I believe in building on a community’s vision for its future. How do you ensure connectivity between neighborhoods, the business community, local government, schools and workforce training? Imagine a Venn diagram with overlapping circles with all of those different entities. For me, that’s where economic development really has value.

Day one, what’s your first priority?

When I come into a new position, one of the first things I do is foster collaborative partnerships and build relationships. I feel that’s one of my areas of strength. In the past, I’ve helped build partnerships, in many cases, with entities that haven’t historically worked well together—government officials, regional partners, local partners, the arts community, the education community. I really want to first start with listening and learning about priorities and interests from all of those different entities to figure out a way to massage them into working toward common goals.

Your predecessor, Victor Hoskins, was a driving force in bringing Amazon to Arlington. How will you further cultivate that partnership while also addressing community concerns about problems that could arise in the wake of Amazon’s arrival?

I think maybe the most important thing is having an open line of communication. Amazon is being a great community partner already. Even though I wasn’t involved, I saw the major gift they provided toward workforce housing. That’s exactly what you want from a corporate citizen. My understanding is that workforce housing is a challenge here and making sure there’s housing for multiple socioeconomic levels. To have one of the community’s major employees come in and provide resources for it, that’s great. They want to be part of the solution. Similarly, Arlington listened to the entire Commonwealth of Virginia and Amazon about what they were looking for in terms of a new location. So, they invested in a Virginia Tech campus in Northern Virginia, transportation, and infrastructure upgrades. It was an excellent case study in communicating and finding ways to agree on enough points to make the project move forward.

Do you anticipate economic development challenges in Arlington that are unlike any you encountered in your previous posts?

When I came to Danville, it had record unemployment and was suffering from a loss of major legacy industry. So that job was really centered around job creation. It’s different here in Arlington. The challenge for me is to continue the great work that the office has already done to reduce the office vacancy rate from 22% down to somewhere like 16%. It’s finding unique ways to do real estate redevelopment, adaptive reuse of existing structures, and thinking about how our future needs for industry, residents, and the community align with real estate development opportunities. Look, we can’t create any more space. So how do we paint a masterpiece with what we have?

Amazon isn’t the only major player coming to town. Nestle and Lidl have also set up shop here in Arlington in recent years. How do you plan to balance the goal of attracting more large corporations with making sure needs are met for smaller, local businesses?

We have to have an attentive ear for both. It’s not an “either or” situation. It’s an “and” strategy. On average, about 70 to 80% of job growth creation comes from existing business growth. You can’t have a comprehensive economic strategy without focusing on the growth of existing businesses. So I have to listen to their needs. For some, that’s connectivity to financing. For others, it’s workforce and finding talent. We have tremendous workforce development potential with Northern Virginia Community College, Virginia Tech, George Mason and Marymount University all in the area. Small businesses need to be heard. They are the backbone of the economy in most counties and cities.

Are there aspects of your job that the public may not know a whole lot about or understand?

You mean besides the sleepless nights and the long hours? (Haha.) People always ask how we encourage economic growth and what exactly we do every day. Well, one day we could be working on a K-12 workforce development partnership. The next, working with a Fortune 500 company and putting a financial package together. Then, the next day, an adaptive reuse project and a strategic arts and culture plan. It’s always an eclectic mix.

Tell us something that folks may not know about you. 

I’m a concert pianist. I studied classical music for 12 years. It’s an outlet for me now, something I do to de-stress and get away. I keep a piano or keyboard in my home, so when I need to decompress a little bit, I can play some music.

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