- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

More businesses are moving to the outskirts of the D.C. area, in part to be closer to workers who are chucking the traffic-choked older suburbs for the slower pace of the region's rural areas.

The places that experienced the biggest population gains during the 1990s, such as Stafford County in Virginia and Calvert County in Maryland, are also attracting companies seeking cheaper land and new workers.

Census data released last month showed Stafford's population climbed 51 percent in 2000, from 62,225 in 1990 to 92,446. The growth has transformed some of the county's countryside into housing developments, and now office buildings are popping up, too.

Since 1999, developers have built more than 1 million square feet of commercial space in Stafford, including offices for the defense contractors moving closer to Marine Corps Base Quantico in neighboring Prince William County.

An additional 100,000 square feet of office space is expected to be completed in Stafford by July, according to the county's Department of Economic Development.

Companies are also expanding in places like Calvert, a Southern Maryland jurisdiction frequently referred to as a "bedroom community" because most of its residents commute to jobs closer to the District, often spending as much as four hours a day battling Beltway traffic.

"Businesses are beginning to follow the people moving into the bedroom communities. It's a time of rapid change for a lot of these counties," says Anirban Basu, senior economist for RESI, Towson University's research arm.

Many companies say they like the cheaper land and rent available in the outer suburbs.

A four-story office building outside the Capital Beltway typically rents space for about $27 per square foot, compared with a rate of $48 per square foot in a downtown D.C. building, according to Delta Associates, a real estate research firm in Alexandria.

But it's not just cheap rent bringing business to the outer suburbs: Employers also say they also want to be closer to their workers.

BTG Inc., a Fairfax software developer, opened a small operation in Calvert in February, after the company's employees from Southern Maryland lobbied the firm's chairman for an office closer to home.

"More and more people who have moved to Southern Maryland want to get off the Beltway, and our people were no different," says Bill Battaglia, director of the North Beach office.

Calvert and the other outer suburbs say they welcome companies like BTG: Bringing jobs closer to home reduces traffic and air pollution, and expanding a county's commercial tax base doesn't force homeowners to carry the burden for paying for public services like schools and police.

Environmentalists question the wisdom of moving further from the District.

"Local governments are already under pressure to support residential growth. Commercial development only adds to that," says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an umbrella organization of leading environmental groups.

Mr. Schwartz also cites research from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that indicates the region's leading employment centers will still be within 20 miles of the District 25 years from now.

"You have to put what is happening in Stafford County in context to what is happening in Gallery Place," he says, referring to the major redevelopment project in downtown Washington.

Office space rising

Delta Associates and other research groups do not track office space construction and vacancy rates in the outer suburbs. But economic development officials in some of these jurisdictions say developers can't build space fast enough.

Herndon-based defense contractor Logicon Inc. opened an office in Stafford in 1998 to be closer to one of its major clients, the Quantico Marine base. The firm, which has about 150 employees in Stafford, was forced to take one of the few spaces available in the county at the time: a spot next to a coin-operated laundry in an Aquia strip mall.

Today, developers are putting up office space in Stafford at an unprecedented clip. More than 1 million square feet of commercial space has been built since 1999, with an additional 100,000 square feet slated to become available by July.

"Developers have recognized the need for more space and responded," says Robert C. Carter, assistant director for the Stafford County Department of Economic Development.

In Charles County, which lies south of Prince George's County in Southern Maryland, Columbia developer Manekin LLC is planning offices on a 50-acre tract that could eventually yield 300,000 square feet of space.

Alton D. Fryer, a senior vice president for Manekin, says the company hopes to repeat its success in Maryland's Frederick County, where it began developing offices in the mid-1980s.

Back then, Frederick which lies north of Montgomery County succeeded in luring medium-sized companies that found Montgomery's office market too expensive. In recent years, the county has attracted larger firms including construction and engineering conglomerate Bechtel Power Corp. and biotechnology giant Life Technologies Inc. from Montgomery.

"We think there's real potential to attract those same kinds of companies to Charles County. We see it appealing to companies that want an edge in hiring," Mr. Fryer says.

Luring business

Some of the D.C. area's larger jurisdictions aren't willing to lose business to the region's edge counties.

Prince William County itself thought of as an outer suburb until recently is considering a zoning change that would allow more offices to be built in the county's eastern end.

The supervisor lobbying for the zoning change, Dumfries Republican Maureen S. Caddigan, says she wants to stem the loss of defense contracting firms in eastern Prince William to Stafford, where more office space is available.

Gerald L. Gordon, president of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, does not view Stafford or other outer suburbs as a threat.

Smaller companies, which may be unable to afford to do business in Fairfax, are the ones leaving for outer suburbs, he says.

"The larger high-tech companies are the businesses we focus on, and I don't see them going anywhere," Mr. Gordon says.

Mr. Basu says edge counties like Stafford make life "a little easier" for larger counties like Fairfax.

"If the other counties had not provided an outlet in the 1990s, can you imagine how difficult it would have been for Fairfax to manage all the growth in Northern Virginia?" he says.

Although local politicians often court new businesses and try to lure them with tax breaks and other incentives, they also say they don't want commercial growth to get out of hand.

Privately, many officials say they want to avoid the situation in Loudoun County, where voters in 1999 tossed out most of the nine-member board of supervisors, replacing them with a slate of slow-growth proponents.

Census data show Loudoun's population rose from 86,185 to 169,599 during the 1990s, a 96 percent increase. Most of the growth is attributed to the expansion of Loudoun's high-technology businesses, including media giant AOL Time Warner Inc., which has more than 2,000 workers in the county.

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Slower pace

Businesses that move to the outer suburbs find life there often moves at a slower pace.

BTG is leasing a newly renovated, 1920s-era building in North Beach, a tiny town that sits on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay.

Most of BTG's Calvert employees used to work in the company's D.C. office. Now, instead of grabbing lunch at one of the District's trendy restaurants, they can take a picnic to the beach or hit places like Neptune's, a popular seafood eatery in town.

"The employees love the shorter commute, but they really love being one block from the beach and all its amenities," says Mr. Battaglia.

Meanwhile, Collegiate Financial Services LLC, a direct marketing firm that has created 400 jobs in Stafford since 1998, recruits workers from Northern Virginia by boasting about its slower pace.

"If you spent years commuting from Springfield into D.C., it's pretty nice to go in the other direction. The lack of traffic here makes us competitive with any company in Northern Virginia," says J. Barry Morrow, the company's president and chief operating officer.

Not that all outer suburbs have escaped the region's traffic problems.

In Charles County, for example, officials are trying to secure state funding for a bypass in Hughesville on Route 5, a two-lane road that has become clogged with traffic since the expansion of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in neighboring St. Mary's County.

Also, rush-hour traffic on Interstate 270 between Frederick and Montgomery counties has been a problem for years.

Vernon J. Thompson, an assistant secretary for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, says leaders in these jurisdictions "aggressively" seek funding for new road projects.

"If you ever meet a legislator or an elected official from Southern Maryland, they never let you forget that they're from the fastest-growing-region in the state. It becomes one word with these guys: 'fastestgrowingregion,'" he says.

Continued growth

The outer counties are expected to continue to grow, even if the national economy slows, according to Mr. Basu.

"The population will continue to rise, and people will continue to seek housing in places where they perceive a higher quality of life," he says.

The Virginia Employment Commission predicts Stafford's population of 92,000 will rise to almost 124,000 by 2010, an increase of about 35 percent. In Calvert, the population of 74,500 is expected to rise roughly 30 percent to 96,500 by 2010, according to the Maryland Office of Planning.

Stafford is putting the finishing touches on a 550-acre airport that is expected to open by the end of the year. The facility will serve as a "reliever airport" for Washington Dulles International Airport, and can accommodate corporate jets.

Meanwhile, Calvert says it expects businesses to continue to follow the population increase. The county last year pledged money to help develop a 92-acre office park that would be geared toward technology companies, and it also wants to attract satellite offices for federal agencies.

But at least one edge county is just beginning to jump on the economic development bandwagon.

Last year, Fauquier County a small jurisdiction that borders Stafford established an Office of Economic Development. The agency is putting the finishing touches on a strategic plan that is scheduled to be turned over to the county supervisors for their approval tomorrow.

Talmage Reeves, the department's director, says the plan focuses on attracting technology businesses, nonprofits and other companies to Fauquier, the smallest of the region's edge counties, with 55,000 residents.

"The county supervisors are proud that we have not had the population growth that has taken place in Stafford. But they recognize the need to grow the business base to provide jobs for those people who are moving here," Mr. Reeves says.


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