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New Life in Central Springfield

New businesses emerge from under Interchange Project.

Ronald Maerhofer likes being able to dance the night away in the heart of Springfield's designated "Revitalization District."

Since the opening of JW & Friends Restaurant in Springfield, the Kingstowne resident and businessman has enjoyed two lunches a week and weekend nights at the hangout.

"It's comfortable, the people are friendly, they remember your name," said Maerhofer of the recently opened JW & Friends, located at 6531 S. Backlick Road. "There's a lot of places to eat, but not a lot of places to have a fun evening in the Springfield area," said Maerhofer.

The restaurant opened June 30, and since that time a pair of other restaurants in the immediate vicinity have also opened. Al's Place at the Mixing Bowl occupies a former Shoney's Restaurant on the front side of Springfield Plaza, and a Houlihan's franchise opened Sunday in the Hilton Hotel.

"Now is when things are happening in Springfield," said Nancy-jo Manney, director of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce. In 2000, Fairfax County designated the portion of Springfield to the immediate west of I-95, both north and south of Old Keene Mill Road, one of seven "Revitalization Zones" in the county, hoping to spur growth

through loan programs, tax incentives, zoning assistance and development flexibility. Except for the Commerce Street Bridge, with its brick pavers and acorn lights, the majority of the revitalization project has yet to affect Springfield business, but things are starting to pick up.

UNLIKE THE state of uncertainty in area businesses at the beginning of the massive, $676 million Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Springfield Interchange Project in 1999, things are now starting to stabilize, according to Manney, with work on the roads servicing local traffic mostly done, and three years remaining on the entire project.

The major overhauls to Route 644 both west and east took out 12 or so businesses, according to Manney, some claiming loss of revenue, and others gobbled up outright by the VDOT as it widened existing lanes.

"Some businesses panicked," said Manney. "But in the long run, I think the revitalization efforts will be helped by the Interchange Project."

Opening new businesses is never easy, and the odd traffic patterns the Mixing Bowl causes make drawing new patrons a challenge.

"You really have to market yourself in this community," Manney said. "When a new restaurant comes in, I hold my breath."

JW & Friends was driven by a summer 2003 meeting by two area businessmen, Jerry Stone and Wayne Counts, who wanted to "come up with the perfect bar," said owner/manager Karen Stone.

"We felt Springfield needed a gathering place where regulars could meet, but still bring in people who wanted fine dining," said Stone, whose husband, Jerry, died of cancer before the restaurant opened on June 30.

The restaurant occupies the building that formerly housed Gus's Restaurant, and it holds a five-year lease on the building from the former owners.

"We're not going anywhere," said Stone. The building's interior was completely renovated, and now the restaurant offers live entertainment and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as Washington Redskins tailgate parties on Sunday afternoons.

JW & Friends generally draws a 40-plus crowd, according to Stone, with a menu that includes burgers, salads, Angus beef and fresh fish. Stone said business has been steadily increasing since opening.

"I was here the last two Saturday nights, and I couldn't get in the door," said Maerhofer.

Down the road at Springfield Plaza, the second phase of major renovations to the front side of the buildings is a little more than two weeks in. Tom Searcy, manager of LifeWay Christian Stores in the plaza, said the Interchange Project wasn't too much of a disruption to business.

"At the time the construction was going on, it was a little inconvenient," said Searcy. "Now the traffic flow seems to be good." He said that LifeWay hasn't been affected by the construction, since his customers generally are return patrons. He also pointed to the new signage as a way to draw in new businesses.

"It is nice to have a fresh look," he said. "With that look, new vendors might come check it out."