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Correction to This Article
In some Sept. 17 editions, a chart with an article about Prince William County incorrectly identified two sets of median-income rankings as both for 2003. The chart showed median-income rankings for several area jurisdictions for 2002 and 2003.

Prince William Flaunts Its Prosperity

Study Ranks Income 3rd Among U.S. Counties, but Some Experts Are Dubious

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page B03

Prince William County, long known as a home to biker bars, cheap townhouses and discount shopping, has caught up to its richer neighbors in the region, according to recent Census Bureau figures.

The numbers show that the county has a median household income of nearly $83,000 -- about a $12,000 jump in one year. The Census Bureau ranks the county third in the nation in median household income, behind only Somerset County, N.J., and Howard County.

Alyson Skinner of Gainesville is part of the influx of homeowners helping to boost the county's median income. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

Area Rankings by Household Income
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U.S. Census: Median Household Income Rankings
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Census 2000

The data are based on an annual national survey of about 800,000 households across the nation. Statistically, the Census Bureau says there is no significant difference among the top 10, which also includes Montgomery and Fairfax counties, even though the numbers show Prince William slightly ahead of Fairfax. Loudoun County, Arlington County and Alexandria did not meet the population cutoff to be included in the report on local median incomes.

The caveats didn't stifle a bit of crowing in Prince William, which has been nursing an inferiority complex for decades. Now, finally, county leaders are hoping for a little respect.

"We have been the Rodney Dangerfield of communities," said Sean T. Connaughton, Republican lawyer and chairman of the Board of County Supervisors. "This validates what we have been touting for some time: Prince William is undergoing fundamental change in its demographics and is becoming a community of choice."

What is driving the dramatic change in Prince William are 20,000 houses built in the past five years -- a 20 to 25 percent increase in housing stock, Connaughton said. Most of the new homes are larger, on bigger lots and worth much more than the county's older houses and townhouses.

But some economists are skeptical of the numbers illustrating Prince William's new strength.

"Prince William is an increasingly affluent county, but there's no way it's richer than Fairfax," said Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria. "Maybe there is some distortion due to a high proportion of housing units bought at the high end, or people heavily leveraged -- acting in a kind of housing boom mentality."

Lang said the Census Bureau report is based on a relatively small sample, making it statistically less reliable than a larger survey.

Stephen S. Fuller, a regional economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, also had trouble believing the Census data but said it still could be evidence that Prince William has managed to dramatically change its economic profile in a short time.

"They are building much better housing than they used to build," Fuller said. "It's more like Fairfax."

Many of the new homes are in the booming western part of Prince William, near Lake Manassas, Gainesville and Haymarket, near where the Walt Disney Corp. wanted to build a theme park.

Susan Jacobs, an agent with Long & Foster Realtors in Manassas, said many of the expensive houses are being bought by people moving up from townhouses in Fairfax or other inner suburbs.

"They are making their money off their equity," Jacobs said. "They are taking their profits and, because interest rates are so low, moving up to an a $800,000 house with similar payments."

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