Last year, the executives at National Tire Wholesale Inc. held their collective fingers in the turbulent winds of business to determine where the best place would be for their national headquarters. Then they made a decision: They would build their new $3.2 million home office in Prince William County.
As far as Carl Messmer, executive vice president of the company, is concerned, there was nothing mysterious about why. It was simply a matter of good business judgment. "It was attractive financing and several of our executives already lived in the area," he said. "We know this area is going to be built up."
National Tire isn't alone in that belief. Since 1977, 94 new or expanding businesses have chosen Prince William County as the place to be, spending an estimated $130 million to build facilities there and creating about 4,000 new jobs.
Which is just fine with Prince William County officials, who have spent about $1 million of the county's money during the last five years trying to lure "clean," high-tech, light industry and corporate sales enterprises to its still largely rural countryside just outside Washington.
Their reasoning is also pragmatic. They see development as a way to build up an industrial base that will keep taxes low and help pay for the ever-increasing costs of services such as schools and fire protection.
"The growth of residences in Prince William has far outstripped that of industry," said John R. Gessaman, marketing director for the county's Economic Development Office. "We are beginning to reverse that trend so we have a balanced community of business and residential."
To attract that business, he said, the county has created six major industrial parks of between 100 and 500 or so acres each. There are dozens of other smaller industrial, commercial and corporate parks scattered throughout the county, too, most of which are in the western part, south of Interstate 66.
The county also has an industrial authority, created 10 years ago, that will help arrange low-interest-rate financing for potential developers. According to authority Secretary-Treasurer Ann Gray, developers buy low-interest bonds from private banks and, in return, the authority waives the tax the banks normally would pay on the interest from those bonds. It was just such financing that attracted National Tire, Messmer said.
To Gessaman and other county officials, such development is imperative. Gessaman said that a community where homes far outnumber business creates a tax drain on homeowners, clogs roads with commuters and strips neighborhoods of human resources because most residents spend long days going to and from work and have no time for community activities.
But not all county residents are equally convinced. Many say they view increasing business development with trepidation at best and outright dread at worst.
"The industry they are pushing for with taxpayers' money just ruins the quality of life in the county for those taxpayers," said community activist Kay Levine. In the past four years, Levine said, she has watched the 110 wooded acres behind her home in a Woodbridge subdivison stripped and leveled in preparation for an industrial complex.
"We're constantly told we need the tax base," Levine said. "But with all the breaks the county gives these industries to move here, those promised tax breaks are 25 years down the road. And we, the taxpayers, are paying for them to locate here between all the bonds and roads and water offered as an incentive."
Levine said local community groups are forming to oppose potential development, which they fear will destroy their neighborhoods. It's not that they are opposed to any and all development, she said, but they feel the county is pushing too hard and fast for development it cannot handle.
For instance, she said, county planners say more roads are needed for the increase in traffic that development will create. But they say a major highway bypass scheduled to cut through commercial and corporate park zone areas will not be built anytime soon because the county can't find or provide the needed funding.
"They are grabbing at any industry they can get instead of letting it develop naturally," Levine said.
She also questions the much-touted benefits of development: "It's not going to create jobs, because most people who live here are civil workers. They're not going to quit their jobs to work in a manufacturing plant down the street."
Gessaman said he understands those concerns. "It's true that 25 years down the road we will be getting a better return in taxes than we have now," he said. "But there's no doubt that we're doing well now."
Although Gessaman may have some trouble selling everyone in the county on business development, he's having no such trouble selling businesses on Prince William. He describes the county as a sort of industrial plum, ripe for picking because of its proximity to Washington and its educated work force.
Growth in Prince William is inevitable in Messmer's eyes.
"I won't call this area the next Tysons Corner," he said. "But we expect to be in the middle of things in five years."
"We're heading in that direction," Gessaman said.
And Levine said, "I shudder at the thought."