Fifty years ago, around the same time the last 24 miles of asphalt were being laid to complete the Capital Beltway, as the first shovels of development near the rustic crossroads of Routes 7 and 123 were starting to shape what would then be the nation’s largest enclosed mall, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that, arguably, did more to propel the county’s rising fortunes than any other factor: It created what is now called the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.
That act laid the foundation and set a path that turned a sleepy bedroom community in the shadow of the nation’s capital into what Time magazine has called “one of the great economic success stories of our time.” The county is home to 10 Fortune 500 company headquarters – more than 30 states – and boasts more than 115 million square feet of commercial office space. Forbes puts median family income in Fairfax as the fifth-highest in the country, and the county’s schools are perennially ranked among the nation’s best.
The evolution of Fairfax County into the second-largest suburban office market in the U.S. has been no accident. It has been a prescriptive strategy driven by a doggedly consistent philosophy: that a strong commercial tax base holds the key to holding down residential taxes and maintaining a high quality of life. Its roots stem from the wisdom of a 1976 “blue ribbon panel” called the Committee to Study the Means of Encouraging Industrial Development in Fairfax County.
Up to that point, the FCEDA had a somewhat different mission, little budget and a small impact. But in the mid-70s it got serious, operating with a substantial budget with which to attract and retain businesses. The audacious goal: increase the commercial portion of the county’s real estate tax base from less than 12 percent to 25 percent within 10 years. “Impossible,” the critics said.
The FCEDA took an unprecedented action, at least up to that time. The authority retained an advertising agency and placed a two-page ad in The Wall Street Journal promoting Fairfax as a great place to do business and laying the groundwork for what some began to call “the Fairfax County brand.” The ad began to put the county on the map and set the stage for a sustained effort that has continued to grow awareness about Fairfax, and more importantly, drive interest in the county as a commercial hub.
The strategy did succeed in hitting its 25 percent target (it is about 20 percent now), and another byproduct has been a lower real estate tax rate. In the late 1970s, property taxes were assessed at $1.79 per $100 of value. Decades later, the rate today is $1.09, close to a 40 percent decrease.
A half-century after the creation of the EDA, the fundamental strategy is still much the same, although with some recalibrations. One current priority is to continue to diversify the business base, an accomplishment that has helped the county weather the downturn in federal spending. The marketing focus has shifted largely online, leveraging the power of Google and other search tools.
The emergence of George Mason University as a major academic and research center is fostering new economic opportunities. And, the EDA has a physical presence not only in two major U.S. markets – Boston and Los Angeles – but also in select overseas markets (Bangalore, London, Munich, Seoul and Tel Aviv) where it is working actively to attract companies interested in a U.S. presence.
As the county marks another milestone – the opening of the Silver Line in Tysons Corner and Reston – the face of Fairfax County has changed markedly over 50 years. But while the county has been transformed over those five decades, this has remained consistent: a strategy, commitment and priority to position Fairfax County as one of the nation’s premier commercial centers.
In 2007, Time magazine called Fairfax County “one of the great economic success stories of our time.” Yet, even with all that has been accomplished, we believe the county’s best days are still ahead.
Earle C. Williams served as chairman of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority Commission from 1975-1978. Steven L. Davis has chaired the FCEDA Commission since 2004.