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County Approves $25,000 To Create Swan From Ugly Duckling

What has been one of the biggest eyesores along the Route 1 corridor is about to become one of the most attractive, thanks in part, to a pilot project recently initiated by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

The old Hechinger Building at 7770 Richmond Highway will become the new home of Gold's Gym on November 20. As part of its transformation a total facade face lift will replace the blue cinder block bunker look with attractive stone and stucco.

Making this possible is a $25,000 demonstration project grant from Fairfax County under its new "Facade Improvements Fund." Monies from the fund are administered by the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation, according to Becky Witman, SFDC executive director.

The initial expenditure was approved at Monday's meeting of the Board of Supervisors. It will become part of the overall investment in the property by the new owners, Ironworks Gym, Inc., headed by Pleasant Lewis, president.

"We are investing approximately $2 million on interior improvements to the building and nearly $170,000 on its exterior appearance. This money will enable us to do a lot more to the outside than we had originally intended," Lewis said.

"This is going to one of the best gyms in the country. It will be state-of-the art. There will also be other uses to the building including a doctor's office in the front," he explained. "We are repaving the parking lot and doing extensive landscaping to make it attractive."

ALTHOUGH GOLD'S GYM is a franchise, Lewis confirmed that his is the only non-corporate enterprise in the Greater Washington Area. He owns two other facilities in Florida and is developing a third in that state.

Gold's Gym has been located in the old Service Merchandise building, 6608 Richmond Highway. That site has been purchased by Target Stores which plans to demolish the existing structure and construct a new store, according to Witman.

"As part of the deal Target bought out Gold's lease on the Service Merchandise building. That is why the move is being fast-tracked. There is a severe penalty involved if the vacation is delayed," she explained.

"Our concern has been these old buildings look from the outside. We have been working on this program for two years. This project was approved as a demonstration experiment. We are hoping others will take advantage of the program," Witman said.

"Overall the county has allocated about $125,000. After this expenditure, there will be approximately $100,000 remaining. The most any one business can draw in $25,000 and they have to at least match that amount. Lewis is going well beyond that," she clarified.

Two of the primary proponents of the program on the Board of Supervisors have been Gerald W. Hyland, Mount Vernon District Supervisor and Vice Chairman of the Board, and Dana Kauffman, Lee District Supervisor.

"This is a modest amount of money to help improve the appearance of properties along Route 1. This encourages owners to make improvements to the front of their building," said Hyland . "It also strengthens the business partnership with county government."

Kauffman viewed the program as, "Finally, we are getting something more than beatification. It's more of a public/private business cooperation. It sends the message that the corridor will look better."

PRESENTLY, THE monies are limited to the Route 1 corridor. But, their use can be expanded countywide once the demonstration phase is complete and evaluated, according to Kauffman.

"We are soon to get some money from the builder of the South County Government Center. They committed funds to blight abatement as part of the original agreement. Gerry and I agreed to put it to use along the corridor," Kauffman revealed.

"We also know that a deteriorating commercial area has an adverse effect on surrounding residential areas. By helping businesses succeed, neighborhoods benefit as well," Kauffman said.

Witman views this first project as "a great opportunity to prove the value of this program. What other better example than to improve the appearance of this building? It is so prominent and so ugly," she insisted.

At the Monday Board of Supervisor's meeting, Sully District Supervisor Michael Frey (R) said he was not comfortable with giving county money to a private landowner to do repairs.

"This seems to me a horrible precedent to be setting," he said. Nevertheless, he said he would support it "with great trepidation."

Karen Harwood, a deputy county attorney, said under Virginia code, the practice was "not illegal."

(County reporter David Harrison contributed to this story.)