The historic farm community of Haymarket, Va., (pop. 288), which hasn't bustled since the 19th century when it was a busy hay market, has been in the midst of an office boom for the past two years.
The offices are all one room in size, most of them located in ramshackle deserted buildings. Many contain a desk, a chair and, occasionally, a disconnected telephone. But no people.
"Some have accused us of having dope dealers in there," said Town Council member Hugh Orndorf, who along with fellow council member James Gossom owns much of the mile-square town and most of the old buildings that have been divided up into little empty offices. "But there's nothing illegal about them."
Town officials say the tenants are, instead, mostly small-time dealers in used cars -- 27 of them, who have settled on this tiny Prince William County community 40 miles west of Washington as a congenial locale for meeting Virginia's rules for doing business in the state.
Virginia officials said that while they know the offices are in Haymarket, they are unsure where the cars are being bought and sold.
Under state motor vehicle laws, dealers must have a Virginia business address, post a bond and obtain zoning approval for their operations. Haymarket, Orndorf acknowledges, fills the bill.
"There's been a lot of gossip but they're the offices all legitimate," says Orndorf, who has an auto dealer's license for his own garage and is landlord for at least three empty offices of absentee renters.
The auto dealers are converging on Haymarket, he said, because "they can rent an office for $200 a month here that'd cost them $500-$600 a month anywhere else."
And they're good, quiet tenants, Orndorf added, since they almost never visit the offices "and don't buy or sell any cars here."
Officials at the state Motor Vehicle Division said that under state privacy laws they cannot release the names and home addresses of the firms' owners.
The department is concerned about the proliferation of dealers in Haymarket, however, "and is now investigating the situation in the town" to make certain dealers are abiding by state regulations, according to DMV spokeswoman Paula Kripaitis.
She said that while the dealers are not required to have a telephone or desk and chair -- contrary to what some local residents said they believed -- they are required to post a $15,000 bond and maintain a 250-square-foot office, with office hours posted in four-inch high letters.
The Haymarket Town Council, acting as its own zoning commission, has regularly granted approval to auto firms, three within the last month, according to town records. It charges them each $25 a year for a business license, although 10 of the 27 out-of-town firms have not paid the fee, said town treasurer Gertrude Bean, who is also a council member.
The biggest landlord of empty office space is council member Gossom, who has almost a dozen auto dealers on the second floor of his new hardware store building and some in a nearby building, and is now chopping up his old hardware store into 250 square-foot boxes to hold a dozen more. Plywood signs in his store window identify some of the occupants.
"I have a few," Gossom said. But he declined to discuss the empty offices, saying, "Ask my son."
His son, Alan, standing beside him in the family hardware store last week, said, "I don't talk to the press. They're always quoting Daddy wrong."
Mayor Muriel Gilbertson, 78, who moved to town a dozen years ago, said she is troubled by the phantom office boom, but has no answers to her questions about the burgeoning business.
"I'm told there's nothing illegal about this," she said. "But it is perplexing and I get a lot of calls from people asking what's going on. I don't really know."