County Still Counting on Presence Of AOL

By Arianne Aryanpur and Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Loudoun officials said this week that although they regret AOL's decision to move its corporate headquarters from Dulles to New York, they remain optimistic the company will maintain a strong presence in the county.

"We regret that they've chosen to move, but we understand why," said Dorri O'Brien Morin, spokeswoman for the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development.

On Monday, AOL announced it was moving its senior executives to new corporate headquarters in Manhattan to be closer to the advertising industry as part of a restructuring. AOL employs about 4,000 people at its Dulles campus, most of whom will remain, the announcement said.

A Loudoun official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she was told by AOL executives that the move will affect fewer than 100 people. Calls to AOL seeking exact numbers were not returned Tuesday.

"There are those Chicken Littles that say the sky is falling, but the bottom line is we're still home to AOL," Morin said. "There will still be 4,000 people working. There will still be a lot of brain power coming to that campus."

Bobbie Kilberg, chief executive of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a membership and trade association for the technology industry, said the long-term effects of the headquarters move could be more pronounced.

"When you take the leadership of a company and move it to another city, logic tells you that over time there will be a diminution of the jobs that are left there, either because more functions over time will switch to the new headquarters or employees will leave for other opportunities. That's basic Business 101," Kilberg said.

Although local officials and business analysts said the move will not affect the area's economy, they agreed that symbolically it will hurt Loudoun's image as a high-tech center. Information sector jobs account for about 7 percent of the county's workforce, according to the economic development department.

"It's a psychological hit because if for no other reason, AOL was one of the companies that put Northern Virginia on the map as a global technology center," Kilberg said.

According to 2006 data from the Economic Development Department, AOL is the county's largest private employer, followed by Verizon Business and M.C. Dean.

Robyn Bailey, manager of business infrastructure for Loudoun County, said that if AOL left Dulles, it could easily rent individual office buildings to different companies. The campus has several freestanding buildings connected by sprawling, manicured fields and metal bridges.

Tony Howard, president and chief executive of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, said he doubts AOL would ever contemplate leaving Dulles altogether. AOL executives are well aware that technology workers want to live in Northern Virginia and that attempts to relocate them in large numbers would backfire, Howard said.

"Workers really dictate where the jobs are . . . and this is where the talented, ambitious workers are located," he said.

Stephen S. Fuller, director of the George Mason University School of Public Policy's Center for Regional Analysis, agreed.

"Some of the [AOL] workers out there who do see this as a threat will leave and start their own business," he said.

Fuller said he didn't think the move would affect Loudoun's ability to lure high-tech businesses.

"I think companies will continue to come to Loudoun County. We have the best educated workforce in the country. We have a low unemployment rate. We have a high-quality living environment and a good transportation system," Fuller said.

Business owners along Route 625 near the Dulles campus said they didn't expect to be immediately affected by the move.

Papa John's assistant manager Justin Crum said his pizzeria receives about five orders a week, some quite large, from AOL. With the business he gets from Dulles International Airport, Oracle and other technology companies, he isn't worried.

"There's so many businesses around this area it won't impact our business too bad," Crum said.

Nirajan Sigoun, manager of Moe's Southwest Grill, agreed. "It won't be the end of us," said Sigoun, who serves a few AOL employees at lunch each day.

David Sun, manager of the In & Out Market, a nearby convenience store, wondered whether it would be the beginning of bigger changes and more employee relocation.

"I would like them to stay," Sun said.

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