Fairfax County has changed significantly in the 35 years since Fairfax County Economic Development Authority President and CEO Gerald L. Gordon joined the independent, county-funded body for promoting economic development.
Once a sprawling collection of suburban towns and neighborhoods that primarily supported federal government workers, Fairfax County has become more urban as the population has increased and new mixed-use developments have cropped up in Tysons, Reston, and Merrifield.
While Northern Virginia as a whole still depends heavily on federal government spending, elected officials and business leaders have made diversifying the region’s economy a priority in recent years.
Gordon and the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority were at the forefront of that effort, raising questions about where the county will go in the future after the president and CEO officially retires from his position on Jan. 4.
“Throughout the past 30 years, Jerry Gordon has been on the leading edge for moving Fairfax County into the world-class business location it is today,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said. “No one is a fiercer advocate for Fairfax County, and I will personally miss working with him.”
A native of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, Gordon already had stints with the U.S. Department of Labor and Arlington County when he first joined the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority in 1983.
At that time, the authority was already touting the presence of 500 high-tech firms and 1,800 companies that “capitalize on the greatest minds and resources in America,” according to the most recent edition of the Fairfax Leader, the FCEDA’s quarterly newsletter.
Even with the nationwide recession in 2008 and the federal budget sequestration in 2013, Fairfax County has seen overall soaring economic growth in the three decades since Gordon became the FCEDA’s president and CEO.
More than 36,000 companies, including almost 8,900 technology companies, now have a presence in the county. 10 Fortune 500 companies now have headquarters in Fairfax County compared to the 1980s, when the county had only one.
Since Gordon joined in 1983, the amount of office space in Fairfax County has ballooned from 32 million square feet to more than 117 million, making it the second-largest suburban office market in the nation.
Fairfax County has also seen a more sizable presence from foreign-owned companies, a category that now boasts more than 400 companies from 47 countries, and the number of businesses that are minority-owned has gone up to 41 percent, compared to 17 percent in the early 1990s when data on that statistic was first collected.
“Marketing Fairfax County is a pretty ‘easy sell,’ from its people to its culture to its neighborhoods to its institutions,” Gordon said in an op-ed to the Fairfax Leader. “…It requires only drive, ambition, dedication, and perhaps a little bit of luck to succeed in Fairfax County.”
Gordon says his success at the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority was made possible by county officials who supported the FCEDA and its work for the county’s business community regardless of partisan affiliations.
He also points to diversity as a factor that has been crucial to the county’s economic success.
“Diversity not only is accepted in the county, it is embraced, because its inherent value is clear to those who live and work here,” Gordon said.
As the county looks to ease its reliance on the federal government in the wake of sequestration, the FCEDA has attempted to expand the county’s foothold in other industries, particularly in the technology sector.
Fairfax County currently has 8,844 tech firms and 148,801 tech jobs, which account for 25 percent of the jobs in the county, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by the FCEDA.
Northern Virginia Technology Council president and CEO Bobbie Kilberg credits Gordon with helping convince tech companies of Fairfax County’s desirability as a location.
“Jerry was a leader in changing the face of the county and, with it, changing the Commonwealth as well,” Kilberg said. “We are truly a global technology center thanks to Jerry’s work in attracting companies to locate in Fairfax, set down real roots, and expand here.”
The FCEDA announced Gordon’s plans to retire on Aug. 28.
After his departure from the authority becomes effective on Jan. 4, Gordon will transition to the world of academia as a fellow in the College of Charleston, S.C., Joseph P. Riley Center for Livable Communities and a professor in the college’s master of public administration program.
The Fairfax County Economic Development Authority has yet to reveal Gordon’s successor, but the group announced on Oct. 16 that it has hired the consulting firm Korn Ferry to assist in a nationwide search.
In anticipation of his retirement, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors led by Bulova declared Dec. 5 to be Jerry Gordon Day in the county, and he received a congressional proclamation in honor of his service to the county from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-11th).
The FCEDA Commission, which governs the authority, has created a scholarship fund to benefit students in George Mason University’s honors college in recognition of Gordon’s work as a chair on the Honors College Advisory Board.
The McLean and Dulles Regional Chambers of Commerce both presented Gordon with awards, according to the FCEDA.
In his farewell message in the Fairfax Leader, Gordon highlighted the FCEDA staff as “the strongest economic development team in America and likely one of the finest and most dedicated groups of public sector employees in any pursuit in the nation.”
“I have spent 35 years telling pretty much anyone who would listen or hand me a microphone about this exceptional community,” Gordon said. “All things considered, I feel extraordinarily blessed to have had the opportunity to serve for and with such extraordinary individuals for so long and for such an excellent cause.”