By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007
Ten years ago, Prince William County set out on an ambitious plan to convert 1,500 acres of dairy farms into a life sciences and high-tech business hub. The Innovation at Prince William business park was expected to generate high-quality jobs and create a more urban feel to the bedroom community, and help the county put its stamp on the Washington region's economic boom.
By some measures, the county's efforts have yielded success. Innovation, on the western end of the county, has attracted about $503 million in investment and 2,057 jobs from businesses and organizations that have located there or plan to move in soon, according to the county's economic development office.
The FBI is building its Northern Virginia field office there, bringing 300 new jobs; and George Mason University broke ground last week on a $25 million biomedical research lab funded by the National Institutes of Health. On Sept. 1, a biotech company, Mediatech, moved from Herndon into new offices at the business park, adding 202 jobs.
Yet about half the land the county purchased in 1997 is still undeveloped and the park's trophy occupant, Eli Lilly, pulled out last January. The economic development department hasn't attracted any widely recognizable company names to Innovation since it lured American Type Culture Collection from Rockville as its anchor business 13 years ago. Now the business park is a patchwork of office complexes surrounded by empty lots, with a mix of companies that include a waste management firm, an insurance broker and a cable television call center.
The economic development officials and regional developers say it is too early to judge the success of Innovation. High-tech and biotech centers like the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina and Shady Grove Road in Montgomery County, they say, are examples of places that took many years to attract a critical mass of businesses. They say the county is only beginning to bear the fruits of years spent getting roads into Innovation, passing pro-business tax and zoning laws and getting the word out across the country via the county's $2 million economic development program.
"This is not a short-term play, this is a long-term play," said Martin Briley, the executive director of the county's department of economic development. "Synergistic growth will occur over the next decade or two."
The mixed progress of the park illustrates the challenges of luring companies to a business park 35 miles from the District, at a suburban outpost where the closest white-tablecloth restaurant is a few miles away. The county competes with Loudoun and Fairfax counties to attract biotech companies to the region. And recent attention from anti-growth and anti-illegal immigrant measures have affected the county's image.
"Eventually there will be significant development on that property, but you have to realize that Prince William has never been a top-drawer place and their image problems these days aren't helping it," said John T. "Til" Hazel, a longtime regional developer with no interests in Innovation.Trying for a New Image
The image problems Prince William confronts today are similar to the issues it faced decades ago. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was known as a commuter county dependent on businesses such as the Potomac Mills outlet center and strip malls filled with dentists, accountants and real-estate agents. The county developed an anti-business reputation with its much-publicized fight against Disney, which wanted to build a U.S. history theme park near the Manassas battlefield. Residents regularly protested proposals to encourage sprawling growth.
These days, the county is attracting notice for its tough stance on illegal immigration, supporting laws that would cut services to undocumented immigrants and proposals for added police enforcement.
"The more Prince William County is in the news, the more it conveys a sense of turmoil, and businesses like things to be predictable. You don't want to portray yourself as a place that isn't progressive and friendly to businesses and its employees," said James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
Some of the county's elected leaders, however, say the attention over the tough stance on illegal immigrants has helped the county's image as a place that is trying to improve the quality of life for businesses and their employees.
"You don't want to move into a community where people aren't tackling the problem and dealing with it," said Corey Stewart, chairman of the board of supervisors.
Stewart and other county leaders are bullish on Innovation. Its roots date to 1992, when GMU devised its "distributed university" plan to open branches around Northern Virginia, including a satellite campus in Prince William that would be focused on information technology and biotechnology.
The county and IBM, which had a chip plant nearby, gave George Mason land and resources for a new campus. The county hoped George Mason's research departments would be a magnet for businesses such as semiconductor designers and drugmakers, and that its professors would spin off companies from their lab work.
Prince William County soon scored its first big win by attracting American Type Culture Collection from Rockville in 1994. As several counties competed for ATCC, Prince William won in part by offering $6 million in state and county incentives. The relocation of the nonprofit research and culture repository was a vote of confidence in the county's biotech goals, bringing 190 employees with an average annual salary at the time of $54,000. GMU and ATCC shared lab space on the campus, an important symbolic gesture that demonstrated the melding of academia and commerce.
"The county was outstanding. When we needed lights, we got lights. When we needed roads, we got roads," said Raymond Cypess, president of ATCC, who added that the firm initially lost several employees who didn't want to relocate or commute.
To keep up the momentum, Prince William's board of supervisors passed a controversial measure to buy 529 acres of privately owned land for $8.5 million, with plans to sell it to targeted businesses in high tech, biotech and the corporate headquarters of other industries. The county dubbed the 1,500-acre swath of farmland Innovation at Prince William. The county hired Briley, who is now paid $255,356 a year, according to county's human resources department, to manage an expanded staff and revamp marketing plans.
"We were afraid the energy was going to be lost, and the families that owned the land would sit on it," said John Schofield, who helped drive the economic plan as marketing and research director of the Department of Economic Development.
Innovation's first few years were promising. The county was riding the dot-com wave and several high-tech companies such as Covad Communications, Ronobotics, Astrolink International and Avenir announced plans to open offices at the business park. Developers such as Gilbane Properties were buying land for speculative office space.
But when the Internet bubble burst, many of those companies scrapped their plans to come to Prince William or went out of business. In the case of Covad, it sold its data center to Comcast, which uses it to field customer service calls.Innovation's Limits
Today, a drive down University Boulevard, the main road through Innovation, reveals only modest changes since 2001.
George Mason has expanded its campus, which now totals 2,000 students. A biomedical research laboratory, where researchers will develop and test vaccines, treatments and diagnostics against biological terrorism and infectious diseases, is scheduled to open in the summer of 2009. Across the street, ATCC has also nearly doubled its staff and expanded its building. On the other side of the Prince William Parkway, a building that will house 300 jobs at the FBI's Northern Virginia field office is nearly complete.
Yet for-sale signs dot vast stretches of open fields. The closest place to grab lunch beyond some office cafeterias is a McDonald's or a Subway sandwich shop, a short drive outside the park. Business visitors have to stay at hotels miles away on Sudley Road near Interstate 66. ATCC's Cypess, who commutes from suburban Maryland four times a week, holds executive and client meals at a restaurant near Old Town Manassas, about three miles away.
Bringing in more stores and restaurants is tied to the growth in office and other development, said Michael Armm, a representative for developer Lee Sammis Associates, which is planning a hotel and retail space at Innovation.
"Have to have critical mass of business people before you can get services in, and we're heading toward that now," Armm said.
However, one reminder of Innovation's uncertain future is the steel beam skeleton of the half-completed Eli Lilly plant on University Boulevard, which has stood frozen in time since January.
The $325 million facility was to create 350 jobs. But the project was abruptly halted when the Indianapolis-based drug company shifted gears in a company-wide restructuring of its global manufacturing operations. The site is now for sale and may be sold off in smaller parcels if the county agrees to change the land-use rules governing the project.
"There's no way to make it sound like Lilly's leaving was not what it was. It wasn't a good thing," said Robert Scheer, president of developer Scheer Partners, which has developments in Innovation. "What happens in [biotech] is that more than any other industry it behaves like lemmings. Companies go where others have gone."
County leaders now downplay the importance of Eli Lilly's insulin-cartridge manufacturing plant.
"Lilly's operation was going to be primarily a manufacturing operation and wasn't a research-and-development facility that would add a significant life sciences component to Innovation," said Stewart, chairman of the board of supervisors. Besides, he added, "Innovation isn't solely focused on biotech."