New Rural Sales Pitch: Work Outside D.C.'s Fallout Zone

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Winchester and its neighbors along Interstate 81 in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley have much to recommend themselves to potential employers, including a low cost of living, access to a major highway and views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.

More recently, though, the area has been successfully trumpeting another attribute: It is just outside the "blast zone."

In a little-noticed migration with implications for both greater Washington and the valley, several federal agencies, including the FBI, are relocating operations to the I-81 corridor. Helping drive the shift is the government's emphasis on security in a post-Sept. 11 world, which turns Winchester's location 75 miles from Washington into a geographic ideal. It is far enough from the capital to escape the fallout of a nuclear explosion -- a distance often estimated at 50 miles -- but still close enough so that employees can get to the District relatively easily when they need to.

"There's a certain distance they need to be out from the strike zone -- and Winchester is outside of that," said Jim Deskins, economic redevelopment chief for the 26,000-person city.

The moves represent a level of dispersal even beyond other recently announced federal moves, including the military's planned relocation of 22,000 jobs from the District and inner suburbs to Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax County and the FBI's relocation of its Northern Virginia field office from Tysons Corner to Manassas. Local officials and planners have criticized those moves, saying they will worsen sprawl and traffic congestion by moving jobs away from downtown and mass transit.

Whether the moves to the I-81 corridor raise similar concerns is a matter of debate. Federal officials argue that the valley is not only more secure, it's preferable for planning and budget reasons. The cost of land and labor are lower in the valley, and with workers moving into the fringes of Northern Virginia and even West Virginia in search of affordable homes, moving operations to a place such as Winchester could mean shorter commutes for many. That, in turn, could mean lower turnover and a more productive workforce.

Leading the shift is the FBI, which chose Winchester over other towns of similar distance from the District as the site for a big centralized archive that by 2009 will employ at least 1,200 people, many of them now working in Washington and Baltimore. Some employees already are working in a temporary facility outside Winchester, a nondescript building that used to hold a printing firm and is now studded with security cameras and bollards.

FEMA has chosen a farm just outside town for an operations center that will employ 700 people. Local officials say this would include positions moved from Mount Weather, the government's hilltop emergency center on the border of Loudoun and Clarke counties, so that that facility could be devoted to national security instead of natural disasters.

Real estate brokers working in Winchester say that FEMA is looking for additional space for its accounting department and that the Department of Homeland Security is looking for space around Harrisonburg, farther south along I-81. Activity is also picking up north along the corridor. Outside Martinsburg, W.Va., the Coast Guard is building a new National Maritime Center, a 200-person office now in Arlington. In Washington County, Md., near Hagerstown, the government is redeveloping the vacant Fort Ritchie to house unnamed intelligence agencies.

Advocates of "smart growth" say relocating the jobs to the valley may not worsen sprawl and traffic in the D.C. metro area, but they argue that it will cause sprawl within the Shenandoah Valley, particularly since the new facilities are being built outside town, on and around the apple orchards that used to surround Winchester. They warn that the growth could threaten the rolling Piedmont that acts as a buffer between development in Northern Virginia and the I-81 corridor.

Of most concern, the advocates say, is that the federal dispersal is occurring with next to no public discussion. No one has yet made a case for whether it's really necessary to send agencies that far, said Stewart Schwartz, director of the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. If it is simply a matter of finding more affordable land, agencies could expand in Prince George's County, where there is much available room adjacent to Metro stations, he said.

"Where's the public debate, the elected officials' oversight? This level of dispersal didn't even happen at the height of the Cold War," Schwartz said. "We ought to have an open dialogue about what the real threats might be and whether this dispersal is necessary."

Federal officials defend the need to move as far out as Winchester. "For any government agency looking at a new facility in this day and age, of course security is going to be a priority," said Cathy Milhoan, a spokeswoman for the FBI.

This much is certain: The shift already is having a marked impact on the valley. Real estate agents and developers are buying up land along the half-dozen highways that ring Winchester in anticipation of the contractor jobs and other activity that will likely trail the federal jobs.

Next to the site of the FEMA operations center is a parcel on which Tysons Corner-based NV Commercial is building a large shopping center. Land prices are rising farther out, near one of three possible sites for the FBI campus, up the road from the Oak Grove Restaurant where singer Patsy Cline, a Winchester native, used to stop for lunch.

"A facility like this can be a market maker. Anyone in the development industry is going to be interested in that," said Joshua Gurland, a Bethesda-based real estate broker who has spent the past six months working deals around Winchester. "There's a buzz. If people aren't interested yet themselves, they're interested in finding out why other people are."

There is good reason to expect the jobs to drive growth in the area. The federal agencies expect several hundred of their employees in Washington and elsewhere to relocate for some of the positions. In theory, many of the remaining jobs could be taken by people who now live in Winchester and drive into greater Washington. But Winchester and the rest of Frederick County, Va., send relatively few workers into Washington.

That can be explained by the strong local economy. The I-81 corridor has long served as a major pipeline for goods being transported along the East Coast. That role has only increased as more truckers desert congested Interstate 95 for I-81 and as more companies have begun using Virginia's 17-year-old Inland Port south of Winchester to move goods via rail to or from Norfolk. Rite Aid, Kohl's and Red Bull are among the many companies with big distribution centers in the area.

Also fueling the local economy are Winchester's well-regarded hospital, Shenandoah University, the Apple Blossom Mall and the expanding clusters of big-box stores that draw shoppers from across the region. Most growth has bypassed the historic downtown, but even it is picking up somewhat, with restaurants and specialty shops popping up along the pedestrian mall in the center of town.

With such a tight labor market, local officials expect the new jobs to drive further population growth in Frederick County, which has grown by about 12 percent in the past five years to more than 70,000 -- nearly as fast as Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax counties to the east. Developers have approval to build about 10,000 more homes, mostly north of town.

To Deskins, the redevelopment director, the relocation of federal agencies to the corridor is a sign that the valley is becoming part of a unified mega-region, with Winchester as a kind of "edge city" on its western border. "The center of Northern Virginia has moved," he said. "It used to be around Springfield, but it's really moved to the Dulles corridor -- and that's only a 40-minute drive away from here."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company