Virginia officials fear Air Force research unit will leave Ballston for Ohio

It’s been a rough stretch for Ballston.

The National Science Foundation is leaving for Alexandria. The Fish & Wildlife Service is headed to Falls Church. Last month, the neighborhood water fountain was found to be operating without a license and had to be shut down.


U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (R-Va.), who is retiring this year, is trying to keep an Air Force research unit in Ballston. (Washington Post)

Now members of Congress are concerned that the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) will relocate to Ohio.

The unit, which invests in aerospace-related science and engineering research, is currently located at 875 N. Randolph St. in Arlington. On its Web site, the office lists 200 scientists, engineers and administrators, though Arlington officials say the number of jobs in Ballston is more like 170.

Members of the Virginia delegation to Congress have gotten wind of a proposal by the Air Force to relocate the office to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, outside of Dayton, Ohio, home to the Air Force Research Laboratory. In a Jan. 28 letter to General Janet C. Wolfenbarger, Senators Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D), along with Rep. Jim Moran, expressed their concern over the possible move. Read the letter here.

The congressmen argued that Arlington’s research presence was critical to the Air Force unit’s mission, pointing out that Virginia Tech and George Washington University both provide academic research support and related government agencies including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation (for now, anyway) are all nearby.

“Together these institutions provide fertile ground for the cultivation of collaborative research, the benefits of which AFOSR has been reaping for decades,” they wrote. “We believe the research synergies achieved here cannot be replicated at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. We fear the impact that such a move would have on current and future research efforts, not just for the Air Force but for the wider academic and defense communities.”

An Air Force spokesman did not return a request for comment. Moran aide Thomas Scanlon said he was not aware of any response to the letter.

Though he had not seen the letter, Terry Holzheimer, director of Arlington Economic Development, said concern was triggered by a notice the Air Force put out asking for public input on the relocation idea with a period for commenting only five days long. 

“Our feeling is it was mostly driven by some secretary of defense budget decision. It’s not being driven by the agency,” Holzheimer said.

If the office does depart it will be another blow to Ballston’s reputation as a center for science. The Ballston Business Improvement District promotes the area as “a community driven by innovation.” Every month the Ballston Science and Technology Alliance and the county hold a scientific discussion — dubbed Cafe Scientifique ; recent topics have been “Incorporating Value of Nature into Corporate Decisions” and “Global Large-scale Neuroscience.”

Can Ballston retain its science rep if all the scientists move out?

Holzheimer said that the neighborhood’s economy continues to improve but that at some point its science identity could reach a point of reckoning: “If we start losing them all, well, then yeah we’ll have to re-position ourselves. But we’re not there yet.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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