Correction to This Article
The article about a proposal to seek a commercial tenant for empty office space in the Fairfax County Government Center incorrectly said that 300 county employees work there. About 1,700 full-time employees work at the Government Center, county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said.

Fairfax County seeks private sector to rent empty government space

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010

Fairfax County officials are looking to fill an empty office in the glass-enclosed Government Center with a store -- perhaps a sundries shop, mail-and-postage business or dry cleaners -- in one more attempt to generate revenue to help close a multimillion-dollar budget gap.

If the store comes to fruition, it would mark the first time a private business has set up shop in the central offices of a Washington area public locality, officials say. Supporters of the plan said it would also be a long-awaited first step in turning the cavernous and isolated Government Center into a pedestrian-friendly complex with a more urban appeal.

The 1,210-square-foot store would be in space that the county's maps and publications center occupied until budget cuts forced it to close last year. A request for interested businesses has been advertised, and, as of Friday, two parties had visited the site. The deadline to submit a letter of intent to bid on the contract is Tuesday.

"Oftentimes, our employees have to go get deodorant or Tylenol from the local grocery store if they need it during the day, so to get that stuff at the Government Center, that would be a major convenience," said Jose Comayagua Jr., director of Fairfax County's Facilities Management Department.

It would also lead to additional revenue because a business tenant would be paying the county rent for the space.

Among the retail options being pushed by county officials: a shoe-repair shop, a greeting-card store and an over-the-counter pharmacy.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D), who came up with the idea for the store. "It'd be great to have people avoid having to get into their car to get things, and having more amenities here accomplishes that."

When the Government Center opened in 1992, the county's Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection opened a gift shop in the building's first floor to sell maps and publications, along with county logo-embossed shirts, tote bags and hats. But last year, as public officials in the wealthy Northern Virginia jurisdiction wrestled with an unprecedented budget shortfall, the gift shop was closed in the summer.

As county board supervisor and then chairman, Bulova has pushed for other public-private retail partnerships, including allowing merchants to work out of the Burke Center Virginia Railway Express Station Parking Garage. The garage -- a $28.8 million, partially federally funded project in Burke that opened in June 2008 -- was built with the idea that kiosks would eventually be placed in the station.

But some have expressed concern over whether a store at the Government Center -- or at any government building within walking distance of a strip mall -- could attract enough business to survive.

County Executive Anthony H. Griffin has said he wonders whether any business on the Government Center's first floor, out of view from the building's entrance and away from most pedestrian traffic, could bring in enough customers to make it profitable. About 300 county employees work in the building, and about 500 people visit the facility each workday.

"Given the amount of convenient retail in close proximity to the Government Center, I personally am not sure it will work," Griffin said. Within a mile of the Government Center, there are two outdoor shopping centers, Fairfax Corner and Fair Lakes Promenade, and the Fair Oaks Mall.

The only similar local examples of private businesses operating out of government buildings are restaurants at the Dr. A.J. Ferlazzo Building in Woodbridge, and at One Judiciary Square and the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center in the District.

In the private sector, however, it's not uncommon to see the first floors or basements of high-rise office and apartment buildings dedicated to retail establishments, including coffeehouses, specialty shops and drug stores. Just don't expect to see a similar retail park at the Fairfax County Government Center.

"If it doesn't work out, we can always use more office space," Comayagua said.

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