By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007
Loudoun County seems to have everything going for it. It is one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, it has posted a dramatic increase in jobs, and it enjoys the nation's second-highest median household income, right behind Fairfax.
But to young-adult residents the county may have at least one glaring flaw: It looks slightly middle-aged.
About 69 percent of households in Loudoun County are family households, according to 2006 Census data, and 41 percent of its households have children under 18. Loudoun ties with Fairfax as the second-largest family population in Northern Virginia, after Prince William County.
Worried that the county could appear less than charming to a vital part of the workforce, Loudoun's Department of Economic Development has flagged the attraction of 20-somethings as an issue.
"This is the next generation of entrepreneurs," said Dorri O'Brien Morin, a department spokeswoman. "We want them to work in county."
The hope is that future mixed-use and town center projects will attract young people with their downtown-like atmospheres. Loudoun doesn't want to be known as a family suburb forever.
Bill Dean, chief executive of M.C. Dean, a Dulles engineering firm, said the company's suburban location has hurt its job pitch. Job-hunting college students just aren't interested in living in this family-oriented environment.
"You are going to find that most of our young people do the reverse commute," said Dean, who noticed that many of the company's young employees choose to live in Reston Town Center, Arlington and the District.
The statistics would argue there is little cause for concern.
Looking a little more deeply into Loudoun demographics shows that adults in their 20s make up about 13 percent of the population. That's up from 11 percent in the 2000 census.
Perhaps it's a problem of perception. Loudoun just appears old.
At Old Dominion Brewing Co. in Ashburn, three men are drinking beers at a table during happy hour.
So, what do young professionals do for fun in Loudoun?
"How old do we look?" said Jason Richards of Leesburg. "We have kids."
Better go to Clyde's. That's where the young people hang out, they said.
At Clyde's Willow Creek Farm in Broadlands, the youngest-looking guy at the bar is 26 years old -- and has three kids. He moved to the area to build a house for his family.
"I just work and play with my kids," Paul Sacher said. "That's about it."
Finally, at Shisha Lounge in Sterling there is a small group of college-age adults smoking hookah. Two are foreigners, au pairs for Loudoun families. And three live with parents and attend community college.
The restaurant managers promise that the young people really show up on the weekend.
Still, the county has trouble shaking the image of being a Metro-less suburb full of families and strip malls.
Erin Martinez, 23, grew up in Loudoun and works for the county. For nightlife, she'll drive to Alexandria. Loudoun lacks personality, she said.
"Everything is so cookie cutter," she said.
Raj Lal, 22, said as soon as he and his friends turned 18, they started to frequent the District's clubs and hookah bars. Today, he said, he treks downtown at least twice a week, even though his two jobs are in Ashburn and Sterling.
Though Arlington and Montgomery counties have become known for their trendy eateries and pockets of urbanism, their numbers of young adults have decreased, while they are growing in outer Northern Virginia and the District. In Arlington, the number of people in their 20s has dropped from 22 percent of the population in the 2000 census to about 14 percent today.
Young people are being priced out of the inner suburbs and are trickling farther out into Northern Virginia, said Robert Lang, director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute.
But that doesn't mean Loudoun is inexpensive. The median house price is about $500,000. Businesses in the area have found that the lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest impediments to recruiting hires, particularly young ones.
Even so, there are young people settling down. Janine Hussey, founder of Image Matters, a software technology company in Leesburg, said her young employees are starting families in Loudoun.
"I do think that those of us who live here forget the good press Loudoun gets for being one of the fastest-growing counties," Hussey said.
And jobs are keeping those who have ties to the community.
M.C. Dean has hired six members from one Loudoun family.
"Hey man, you gotta do what you gotta do," Dean said. "When you're stuck in Loudoun County, you got to hire everybody. Maybe we should get a strategy to hire the kids of people who live and work here."
Loudoun natives never have to leave if they don't want to, said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center of Regional Analysis at George Mason University.
"The traditional pattern of suburbanization is that people leave to find high-paying jobs," Fuller said. "Good jobs were in urban centers. That has moved out and spilled out to Loudoun because of the highway system and airport."
Mixed-use and town center developments could propel growth and encourage younger workers to stay in Loudoun after they leave the office.
Developers have offered pedestrian-friendly streets, upscale shopping and a variety of restaurants and entertainment near condominiums and townhouses in hopes that this city-like atmosphere will attract more young professionals to live, work and play in the suburbs.
"If you build it, young people will come," Lang said. "The region and regional economy attracts people from college grads through age 40."
Lang said he expects eastern Loudoun to become a denser region, much like Reston is. Urbanization will accelerate when the Metro extends to the Dulles International Airport, he said.
Projects like One Loudoun and Moorefield Station, which promise to bring vibrant destinations into the community, could also increase the county's cool factor, Morin said.
"For the young, single, we're not a hip place," Morin said. "But that's changing with these urban centers."
Brambleton, a development near the airport, is starting to work on affordable loft-style condominiums to bring young people into the development's commercial hub.
"Single families aren't what we want next to it," said Kim Adams, Brambleton's director of marketing. "We want that mass feel."
Adams compares Brambleton's movie theater to the one in Union Station. Brokers have been traveling to Alexandria and Arlington to find ways to imitate the success of those downtowns.
"The younger crowd creates an environment and lifestyle," she said. "They bring the nightlife we want the town center to have."