Fairfax County has neither a transportation nor affordable housing problem. That was the assessment of Gerald L. Gordon, Ph.D., president and CEO, Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, given to the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce Monday night.
Serving as the keynote speaker during the group's Annual Meeting at the Mount Vernon Inn, Gordon described the County as the economic center of the Washington Metropolitan region. "The District is now our suburb. We have never been in a negative employment growth phase," Gordon said.
As for his assessment of the County's affordable housing and transportation analysis, he based it on who Fairfax County competes against in attracting new business enterprises. "Our primary competitors are California, New York and Boston. To those moving to this area from those locations our housing is far more affordable, they can get something for less than $2 million, and they are amazed they can get to work in less than two hours," he said.
Then he added a caveat. "The issues of cost of housing, cost of labor, and congestion become a problem only after the new industries are here — not when they are making a decision to come here. But that has not slowed either our economic or population growth," Gordon said.
Prior to his present position, Gordon worked for Arlington County and the U.S. Department of Labor. In his present role, Gordon has been instrumental in creating the Emerging Business Forum and bringing the 1988 World Congress on Information Technology to Fairfax County. Under his leadership the County's EDA was named by Site Selection Magazine as one of the top 10 economic development organizations nationwide.
During his presentation, Gordon noted that, in several ways, Fairfax County still faces many of the challenges presented during its slow or no growth years of the early 1970s. In 1974 the then County Board of Supervisors tried to slow growth by preventing the extension of sewer lines to undeveloped areas, according to Gordon.
That was not only struck down by the Supreme Court but also result in the election of a new Board of Supervisors headed by the late Jack Herrity, a growth advocate. That is when the Fairfax County growth boom began, Gordon maintained.
"Housing growth is going to continue because under Virginia law local government can not deny a land owner the right to develop his or her property as long as that development is within the zoning for that property," Gordon said. That means that both population and services, to meet the needs of that population, will continue to rise along with the costs to support them.
Noting that the averaged assessed value of homes in the County had risen nearly 50 percent in the past years, he stated that had accounted for the flush County budget. "However, this year that increase is projected at only one and one half percent," he said.
"Therefore, the only way to pay for these increased services, particularly in education, is to increase taxes on businesses," Gordon said. But, he pointed out, "Our (Fairfax County) economy has not only grown it has also diversified. The next generation of scientific growth is all in information technology growth. That is what we are geared for."
COMPARING FAIRFAX COUNTY GROWTH to all other jurisdictions in the Metropolitan area, Gordon maintained there was no comparison. Referring to the 106 million square feet of office space existing in the County that continues to increase, Gordon made no excuses for the aggressive actions of the Authority in going after and attracting new business enterprises.
He attributed the lure of Fairfax County to new businesses as not only a business/growth friendly political climate but also excellent schools. "Other areas such as Charlotte are attractive places to live but when businesses look at their schools its' a different story," he said.
Although Fairfax County benefits from the economic engine of the federal government it is not dependent upon it, according to Gordon. However, in referring to the impending growth at Fort Belvoir and its Engineering Proving Grounds as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Report (BRAC) Gordon saw that as a total plus regardless of any associated problems. "BRAC is great news regardless of the congestion," he said.
According to the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fairfax County leads its closest rival in professional and business service employment growth over the past 15 years by nearly nine percent. When comparing it to the District that growth jumps to 13.1 percent.
Supporting Gordon's reference to Fairfax County's increasing employment diversity, thus its strength against economic downturns, that same Labor report indicated a drop in federal government employment in the County from five percent in 1990 to 3.1 percent in 2005. "Our economy has not only grown it has diversified," Gordon said.