Prince William County’s rise highlighted by income data

Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 22, 2011

I found them!

The government muffinmakers all live in Prince William County now, right?

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

How else — amid the layoffs and recession and foreclosures that have become our new normal — could Prince William see such an impressive jump in its wealth ranking? It must be home to the folks who are making bank supplying the Department of Justice with $16 muffins .

Okay, so maybe that’s not it.

But something’s up when a county long dismissed as an exurban backwater is seeing its median household income rise while the numbers are falling almost everywhere else in the Washington area, according to new census data.

In fact, Prince William now boasts a higher median household income — almost $93,000 — than chichi Montgomery County, which, at $89,000, fell out of the nation’s top 10.

No wonder there’s glee in Gainesville this week.

Prince William has long suffered from a regional inferiority complex. It’s not close enough to the District for a serious power player to hop into a Town Car and zip to the White House for an emergency. Nor is it far enough away to be the land of sprawling estates, fox hunts, wineries and reality show mega-wrecks.

But in the past 10 years, Prince William has morphed from Northern Virginia wannabe to McMansionized megastar.

“We may have been the redheaded stepchild. But now we’re the golden-haired favorite child,” crowed Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, who fist-pumped when he heard the news about the census numbers.

Of course, not everyone in the county has been earning fistfuls of cash. Between 2004 and 2009, more than 10 percent of the county’s homes went into foreclosure, according to the group Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. Many of the folks who were struggling are probably long gone. That’s certainly one way to boost your bottom line.

Meanwhile, gated communities were mushrooming in the Haymarket and Gainesville areas in the western part of the county, and tens of thousands of people were moving in.

Prince William was 13th in CNN Money’s ranking of the nation’s counties for job growth; the county’s population grew by nearly 40 percent in the past decade; and it was the only place that Wegmans opened any grocery stores in 2008. (Prince William got two.)

“It doesn’t even feel like there’s a recession,” said Joyce Bren Compton, who owns a boutique in Old Town Manassas (which is surrounded by Prince William) that sells delicious scarves and splurge costume jewelry and those I-don’t-get-it quilted Vera Bradley bags.

She finished ringing up a $294, boysenberry-colored rolly bag and turned to launch a demonstration of the wonders of a new handbag line.

As I don’t live in Prince William and have the no-median-income growth to prove it, I wouldn’t be buying a handbag.

When I told her and a woman who was browsing a selection of delicate bracelet charms — there’s a little running shoe, a champagne bottle — that Prince William now had a higher median household income than Montgomery County, the shopper’s jaw literally dropped, and she theatrically shut her mouth with one hand.

“I can’t believe that,” she said.

But there’s a dark side to Prince William’s upgraded status.

Almost five years ago, the county, led by Stewart, drew nationwide attention for a crackdown on illegal immigrants that initially required police officers to check on the immigration status of every person under suspicion of violating a local or state law. The law was modified to be a bit less menacing, but the message had been delivered.

“There’s no question there was an exodus of illegal immigrants,” said Stewart, who says it’s no coincidence that the median household income has gone down in those places that absorbed the exodus — mainly Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

After the crackdown, Prince William lost about 21 percent of its Latino population, according to a report this year by the Migration Policy Institute. The number has rebounded since then.

Stewart maintains that Prince William is still welcoming to the foreign-born, who account for more than one in five county residents. And it’s true that the Latino influence in the county remains strong.

A couple of bloggers calling themselves “The Real Housewives of Prince William County” have a list of “Ways you know you’re from Prince William County.” Among the observations:

“You can party in your backyard to the neighbor’s Tejana music.”

“Your friends who live inside the beltway visit you, and a quarter of the way down 66, they ask ‘how much longer??’ ”

“Your weekend includes a trip to Tysons AND a trip to the dump.”

“There are holiday decorations on your neighbor’s house in August.”

They can probably add a line in there about having big bucks, too.

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