Herndon officials, frustrated by years of thwarted efforts to revitalize the town's downtown, are willing to give valuable town-owned land to a developer with the right proposal for the languishing district.

Such a public-private partnership is a relatively novel approach for a jurisdiction of Herndon's size and is modeled after exchanges made by Fairfax County for the county government complex near Fair Oaks and at Fort Belvoir, where the federal government has cut a deal with developers. The town hopes to select a developer through competitive bidding that begins in November.

"I am not aware of another municipality this small attempting to do something this aggressive," said Mayor Thomas Davis Rust, a civil engineer and urban planner in office just over a month. "It will be an ambitious undertaking."

Rust said invigorating the downtown is his highest priority and called the public-private partnership "prudent and the most expeditious way to do it."

Revitalization has been a major issue in this town of about 16,000 residents. Last spring, the town ceased negotiations with local developer Tim McGrath, who had proposed to build a retail complex if the town would build or finance a parking garage for the project.

When the revitalization is completed, the downtown would likely include a municipal center housing town offices and possibly retail space and a performing arts center, along with a parking garage.

In the most likely scenario for a public-private partnership, the developer would get land, financing at lower municipal rates, a guaranteed tenant and decreased review time for its plans, in exchange for a municipal building with space for the town to lease, Town Manager Robert Stalzer said. The adjoining land not owned by the town may be made a part of the package, he added.

Last month, Rust and Stalzer met with Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert to begin working out details of the plan after the county agreed to help the town prepare and evaluate developers' proposals.

While formal negotiations will not begin until bids are sent out, Stalzer said he and Rust have met informally with "less than five developers" who seemed interested.

Several major projects related to the revitalization are underway or scheduled to begin soon, including $2 million in storm drainage improvements to remove most of the undeveloped downtown land from a floodplain and planning for the Willow-Center Street extension, to provide access to a planned library and undeveloped areas. The county and town plan to build a senior housing and day-care center, and the county will break ground on the Herndon Library in spring 1992.

Council member John DeNoyer said he did not know enough about Rust's proposal to comment, but Stalzer and Les Zidel, a Planning Commission member, said they are confident the plan will work.

"I think Mayor Rust doesn't profess to have all the answers as to how we are going to do this but he has the experience and the confidence and the proven ability of having an idea and making it a reality," said Stalzer.

Rust, who served as mayor of Herndon from 1976 through 1984, first began promoting improvements to the downtown in the mid-1970s. Under his tenure, the Herndon Community Center and the Herndon Centennial Golf Course were built and much of the Herndon Parkway was begun.

Zidel said the present council is "ready to take the bull by the horns" and called the public-private partnership "the only way it will work."