The technology company where H. Richard Corona worked went bust in 2001, so he headed for his basement.
That's where the Woodbridge resident and his wife, Diana Corona, started Enterprise Database Corp., which helps businesses by creating Web sites, designing software and managing networks.
Today, Enterprise Database Corp. employs nine full-time and eight part-time workers and three more jobs are being added, making it another example of the kind of small businesses that are contributing to Prince William County's growth.
In December, Prince William ranked as the sixth fastest-growing county in the nation in terms of percentage increase in jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, while Loudoun County was a notch above at fifth place. Prince William was home to 61,000 businesses employing 99,000 workers as of December 2004, a 6.6 percent employment gain compared with December 2003, the labor department reported last month.
While the FBI and Eli Lilly and Co. will employ more than 300 workers each after their facilities open inside the Innovation@Prince William business park in a few years, most of the job growth has been fueled by small companies.
"Small businesses are really a key component to our county's growth," said Martin J. Briley, the county's director of economic development. The region's well-educated and highly trained workforce, he said, has attracted government contractors and technology companies.
His office has the job of persuading big multinational corporations such as Eli Lilly to expand in the county and of holding the hand of small companies like Enterprise Database Corp.
In 2003, Corona's basement business was expanding, and he needed to hire his first employees. It was time to find an office. He searched the region carefully. Rent and services were too expensive in Fairfax. Loudoun was too far from his home. Prince William had good Internet connectivity and good prices. It was just right, he found.
Unsure of how to take those first steps, he turned to the county for help.
"Coming out of the basement is a scary proposition," said Corona, whose client list primarily includes small businesses in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
County economic development officials drove him to various office buildings, talked to landlords on his behalf and helped with permits.
Average wages have been somewhat low in Prince William, driven down by a number of part-time and retail jobs, but Linda D. Decker, president and chief executive of the Flory Small Business Center Inc. in Prince William, said she expects that to change.
"You have a highly educated, competent workforce and now I believe they're making demands," Decker said.
Corona finds that technology employees in Prince William don't earn any less than they would in the District and he has to compete with the government for the best workers.
He said many of his employees live in the area and choose to work for him to avoid the "torture drive" on Interstates 66 and 95.
"We've been able to get more people because it's a reverse commute," Corona said.
His company is growing because it targets a niche market of small businesses that need technology services but can't afford a full-time information technology employee, he said. Because he offers Spanish-language service, he can also cater to the fast-growing Hispanic-owned business market.
But to offer affordable services to these small companies and earn a profit, he needs to have plenty of customers. And so one of his new employees will be a salesperson.