Stafford Sells Itself as a High-Tech Haven
By Peter A. McKay
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 1998; Page V1
So far, Stafford County's business reputation is primarily as the address customers seek out to buy insurance, get a credit card or to troubleshoot programs on their home computers.
But the county wants to attract more of the software development, biotechnology and Internet jobs that have defined the Washington area's recent high-tech boom.
To that end, it's touting some of the same features as its neighbor, Prince William, including an expanding university campus and thousands of well-educated commuters who Stafford officials say would prefer to work at high-tech companies in the county.
For now, though, Stafford remains a bedroom community with a basically industrial economy and a few major white-collar employers.
"The county is pretty well positioned to determine how it wants to grow," said Gene Bailey, assistant county administrator for economic development. "We've got a lot of open space, but we've got a lot going for us in terms of our work force and what's already here."
By far, the county's largest private employer is the insurance giant Geico Corp., which has a 2,800-employee regional headquarters on Warrenton Road. Primarily, the site acts as a call center where employees take orders for new policies and process claims, said Bob Miller, Geico's regional vice president at the facility.
Such telephone work has become a substantive industry in Stafford. The San Francisco software firm Intuit Corp. employs 425 people at a technical support call center in Stafford Industrial Park, where workers answer questions about the company's personal finance programs. And Capital One Services Inc. has a 600-worker service center for credit card customers in Stafford.
Such facilities tended to cluster in the Midwest in the 1970s and 1980s but are now locating near urban areas, Miller said.
But whether their presence can help attract other high-tech employers to an area is unknown.
"I know this much about call centers: They're good because they're white-collar, high-paying, clean industry; and they bring in a lot of jobs," Miller said.
He estimated that an entry-level associate at Geico makes about $22,000 a year, although salaries range up to $60,000.
About 60 percent of Stafford's working residents commute out of the county every day, and the majority of them have technical or professional jobs, county government records show.
And of the jobs located in Stafford, 68 percent are in blue-collar fields such as construction, agriculture and transportation.
After Geico, Stafford's next-largest employer is McLane Mid Atlantic, which distributes supplies to convenience stores from Virginia to New Jersey. A unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., it has more than 800 workers at its Stafford plant, most of them drivers or warehouse employees.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Stafford's job market an unemployment rate that's less than 2 percent has caused companies such as McLane some difficulty in finding workers, said Bill Norman, the plant's division president.
"A lot of people might think only the companies like Intuit are affected by something like that, but that's not true," Norman said. "We've had to get pretty creative with our recruiting, too."
He said Stafford's major industrial employers often find themselves competing for workers.
Stephen Fuller, a George Mason University professor who studies the Washington region's economy, said Stafford's job growth between 1990 and 1996 was mainly supported by the population increase, not by new industries. During that period, the county's population jumped by almost a third, to 83,600 residents.
And Fuller said his research suggests that the character of Stafford's economy will not change much through 2005, even as more people and more businesses locate there.
Fuller projects that about a third of the county's job growth through 2005 will be in the service sector.
"This is still pretty much a locally driven economy, and it will tend to stay that way," Fuller said of Stafford. "As you get residential growth, you need more CVSs and 7-Elevens. That accounts for a lot of the new jobs."
Fuller also said the projected opening of Stafford Regional Airport in 2000 will have little measurable effect on Stafford's economy because it will not include regular commercial flights.
Bailey acknowledges that the facility will not compete with Washington's two major commercial airports, but he said it would help Stafford make a better impression on visiting chief executives considering moves to the county.
"If we can get them on a flight here from one of the larger airports, rather than having them drive in for an hour or so, we'll be much better off," Bailey said. "We need this."
Also key to Stafford's high-tech employment efforts is promoting the Route 17 area in the southern part of the county as a high-tech corridor. The area includes the call centers, as well as smaller firms such as Dongsung America Inc., a Korean manufacturer of laser printer parts; and Colonial Circuits Inc., which makes circuit boards for space shuttles.
Nearby, Fredericksburg-based Mary Washington College plans to open a 50-acre satellite campus next fall. Like George Mason University's Prince William Institute, the Mary Washington campus in Stafford will focus on technology and management courses.
Local officials and businesses owners hope such features will draw larger firms that in turn will help Stafford define its niche in the region. With 75 percent of its 9,331 acres zoned for business use still undeveloped, Stafford can afford to be selective in how its land is developed, Bailey said.
"There has yet to be a major player in the county, mostly because it's been so successful on its own," said Charles G. McDaniel, president of Hilldrup Moving & Storage in Stafford. "You're dealing with a county that's not in the Washington metropolitan area, but is beginning to become part of it in some people's minds."
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