Becky Witsman can rattle off information about most of the 850 properties and 650 businesses located within the 7 miles that comprise the Southeastern Fairfax County's Route 1 corridor. As executive director of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC), she can tell prospective business owners who owns what; how many parcels can be combined; how much time is left on a tenant's lease and how viable their business would be in that location.
A contributing agency of Fairfax County, SFDC is a clearinghouse of information. They have maps, charts, site plans and more.
"We're unique to Fairfax County," said Witsman.
While she doesn't have any say over who buys what and the type of business that they put there, she can be very instrumental in encouraging or discouraging certain businesses.
"I tell people who want to put up a car lot, car wash, storage facility or fast food place, not to waste their time," said Witsman. "They have to go through a public hearing and people won't tolerate it."
Not that there aren't already car lots, car washes, storage facilities and fast food places, but that's the point, residents feel that there are enough and don't need more. It was because of citizens who cared that SFDC was initially created. Tired of the topless places, go-go joints and porno bookstores that littered Route 1, they came together in the early 1980's to form the initial public/private non-profit economic development corporation. SFDC was incorporated in 1981; their charter is "to guide and assist businesses with locating or expanding into southeastern Fairfax County's emerging Richmond Highway (Route 1) corridor. SFDC's program is designed to eliminate barriers to new enterprise, stimulate entrepreneurial initiative, attract and support quality development and provide a single source of development information and assistance."
Since incorporating in 1981, they have helped to facilitate more than $550 million in new construction and redevelopment. That, in turn, has been responsible for creating and/or retaining more than 4200 jobs.
Witsman has been with the organization 15 years; Stephanie Landrum has been with SFDC five years.
AS PROJECTS COORDINATOR, Landrum is responsible for creating all of the materials that are produced. Her most recent publication, Richmond Highway Top Ten, shows 10 available lots of land. Included is information about the size, zoning, owners, assessed value and traffic counts at the nearest intersection. It also includes recommendations and additional information. Many of these lots are combined parcels or consolidations; Witsman said that this is something that is commonly done to yield a larger, more attractive lot.
The brochure, which was mailed to a hundred investors, has been very successful. At least two of the 10 properties highlighted in that brochure are already under contract.
"There's something different every day. That's what keeps us going," said Landrum. "Sometimes we get frustrated because of the lack of progress, but then we see things happen all at once."
The members of SFDC's Board of Directors are critical to the development of Route 1 as well. Officers include Rick Neel, who serves as president; Rick Genuario as first vice president; Tom Collins and Doug Jones as vice presidents; Mike Jones as secretary/treasurer; and Anita Umphlett as past president. There are several other board members as well.
Neel has been president of the board for the past three years, and said, "The reason I serve is because it's a great opportunity to give back. I grew up here, this is my home. I've lived along Richmond Highway and I'm anxious to see its economic health maintained. We have an opportunity to make changes; some significant projects are coming to fruition after years of planning. We're very careful to make it clear what our commercial interests; the fact that there is much more commercial interest is a good sign."
WITH MORE AND MORE PEOPLE looking to locate their business on Route 1, SFDC plays a bigger role than ever in helping people.
Harvey Maisel can attest to that. He's with Maisel-Hollins Development, and is renovating the original Krispy Kreme building into a development which will be called Krispy Korner.
"Becky is very responsive and makes a big difference in that corridor," said Maisel. "The bar really goes up because of that. When you get in a municipality where there are obstacles, the bar drops."
Maisel is not able to identify what tenants are going into the new development yet, but said, "We are talking to regional and national tenants. We have letters of intent and quite a bit of activity. The businesses will be a tremendous complement to the area, and will become part of the fabric of the community."
He anticipates that construction will begin on May 1, and the build-out will take 90 days. While they were planning initially to only do cosmetic changes, they now plan to do a major makeover.
"It will be a first-class makeover. Butz-Wilbern is the architect and will do a great job," said Maisel.
Len Adler's company owns the Adler Shopping Center, which currently house Staples and Fast Eddie's. They've just expanded the center to include a new Domino's store, a Vietnamese restaurant and nail salon. Adler said that it took some time to "get through the municipalities." He is, however, thankful for SFDC.
Adler said, "They [SFDC] were very helpful. They are a wonderful asset; they serve as a conduit between the land owner and municipalities. They serve as a means of filling the gap [between the two]. They tell us what to do to comply."
THE MURRELL BROTHERS are betting on Route 1. With two successful Five Guy branches [one in Hybla Valley and one in Woodbridge] on Route 1 already, they're betting that a third will be just as successful. Not only are they taking a gamble on Route 1, but they are taking over a building that had the kiss of death.
Originally home to a successful Toddle House, the property on the corner of Quander Road and Richmond Highway, has since seen a stream of owners come and go.
Matt Murrell, one of the five brothers, said, "That's our calling card."
Murrell said that they've taken over properties where other restaurants couldn't make it and done well.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we can run a successful business," said Murrell. "We'll have burgers at both end of town."
Not only will Five Guys cover both ends of the highway, but they will be on different sides of the road as well. Other major chains, Domino's Pizza and Papa John's Pizza, have found it profitable to locate in multiple locations as well.
Although Murrell had to replace all the electricity and plumbing in the new building, it is structurally sound.
"It was built to last," said Murrell, who's planning to paint the building, repave the parking lot and do some major landscaping.
"We're going to make that corner look nice," he said.
MURREL'S ONLY CONCERN with Route 1 is the proposed road widening. He's betting that time is on his side.
"It's not going to happen for at least 10-15 years; they don't have the money," he said.
If and when it does happen, both Five Guys will have to close.
Murrell's feeling is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." He thinks that there are other ways to resolve the traffic and pedestrian safety problems on Route 1.
The money can be put to other uses. They need to control the speed factor with traffic control devices," said Murrell.
Witsman is also concerned about the road widening; she answers questions about it as honestly as she can.
"The whole thing is so muddy," said Witsman. "There's a lot at stake in terms of what retailers can and cannot do."
While she realizes that it could take years to implement, she did say that some business owners should be looking into contingency plans.
Another thing muddying the waters for some business owners is the new Chesapeake Bay Act. Witsman said that if Federal Realty, the developers who purchased Mount Vernon Plaza and Hybla Valley Shopping Centers, hadn't filed before the act was trengthened, they would have had much more restrictions on them.
"The resource protection areas have all kinds of twists; there's always something," said Witsman.
There is much talk about all the residential and business development, but the big question on everybody's mind is, what stores and restaurants are coming in? As is the case with the Krispy Korner development, nobody's talking. There's a lot of activity, but nothing's finalized yet. Federal Realty is talking to some major retailers.
"I think you're going to see Federal Realty bring stores we haven't seen before," said Witsman.
The Tasos Design Mixed Use Development, which is taking over the old Dairy Queen building, may bring in new some retailers. Another big development that will hopefully attract some new retailers is the Kings Crossing Town Center. While there is much speculation of what will go in the space currently occupied by Chuck E. Cheese's and Michael's Arts & Crafts, only the developer knows at this point. And they're keeping their cards very close to the vest. The developers are meeting this week with Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland; more information should be forthcoming after that meeting. Some existing businesses my relocate, like Chuck E. Cheese's, which is reported to be moving to the old Ames location as part of the new Federal Realty development.
WHAT ABOUT DINING OPTIONS? Mount Vernon residents have been asking for new eating places for years.
Neel said, "I have heard consistently from residents and business owners that there is a strong interest in more restaurants on the corridor, and a better variety of retail. I believe we'll see a number of quality restaurants [on Route 1]."
Not yet known is the name of the restaurant which will take over the space formerly occupied by Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant; an announcement is expected soon. What is known for sure is that there will be another Five Guys on Route 1. It is also known that Green Olive Restaurant is moving into the old Captain John's Seafood Restaurant and the Viet House will be moving into the new space built in front of Staples and Fast Eddie's (See Dining section for more on Green Olive Restaurant and Viet House).
There are still options for other dining establishments in some of the other larger developments, namely Kings Crossing and Mount Vernon Plaza. Unsure about the future is Jim Todd, owner of four Roy Rogers in this area. His Hybla Valley location, which is currently located near Ruby Tuesday's, will be moved to make way for a new bank. He is negotiating with the owner, but is unclear at this point if he will be relocating in the new shopping center. Todd is also concerned about his Woodlawn location, which would be impacted if they change the course of Old Mill Road when they start the Woodlawn Road bypass.
IN ADDITION TO all the proposed new developments along the corridor, existing businesses are doing their part to improve things as well. Gold's Gym has already taken advantage of the county's new Facade Improvement Program; Cintron Safe & Lock Company and Hybla Valley Veterinary Hospital have presented proposals as well. This matching grant program provides a 50-50 grant match up to $25,000 for building facade improvements. Also considering the program is the Peking Duck Restaurant. By upgrading their buildings, these businesses will help to improve Route 1.
Why the increased interest in Route 1? Neel believes that the explosion of high-end developments in the area has helped to make this area more attractive. There are still obstacles, such as the limited East-West access. Retailers follow certain formulas, looking for certain income ranges, population density, traffic counts, visibility and proximity to other retailers. Some may insist on building only on the "going home side" of the highway. Whatever the obstacles, retailers are starting to catch on that this is a great area, close to Reagan National Airport and Fort Belvoir. Once the Army Museum opens, it will be even more attractive, and SFDC will be there to help.