Prince William County is becoming more adept in drawing high-tech businesses, competing successfully with Fairfax and Loudoun counties, according to Martin Briley, executive director of the county's economic development department.

Briley, guest speaker at Wednesday's Prince William Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon, reiterated the importance of Prince William County as a place companies can easily and happily settle, citing lower taxes for programmable computer equipment, abundant space and residents eager to work locally rather than commute. After trying for years to become a notable player in the Northern Virginia tech wars, Prince William pulled in America Online this spring and hopes to do more of the same.

Briley praised the area as a welcome haven for tech firms and residents who are fed up with long commutes out of the county.

He reported that 609 jobs were created in this area in the first quarter of 1999 -- those jobs being what companies announced, with no real time frame as to when those jobs will be available or filled -- along with 35 new companies and expansion projects. Some of the companies, though with few employees, "are just as important to us" as the larger firms, Briley said.

He cited several businesses that have set up shop in the county in the first quarter, including Applied Internet Technology Group, and SAIC. Applied Internet Technology Group, a start-up, moved into Lake Ridge. The Web design company has two employees. Science Applications International Corporation, a satellite office of San Diego-based SAIC, with offices throughout the U.S. and locally, also opened in Lake Ridge with three employees.

Gray Hawk Systems Inc., a computer systems design firm, is occupying 4,000 square feet of space at Mapledale Plaza in Dale City. Jim Pope, technical director for the company's Prince William County office, said he will hire about a dozen people from the county. "That number will increase significantly" if everything goes according to plan, he said. The company is headquartered in Alexandria.

The companies fit the main targeted industry -- technology -- that the county is hoping to attract to expand its commercial tax base.

KS Custom Cabinet Co. moved into Gateway Square Park on Balls Ford Road, and ATI Career Institute moved into 9,000 square feet of space on Minnieville Road in Woodbridge.

Briley also emphasized that many firms in the area are expanding. He said Prochain Solutions Inc., a software development firm in Lake Ridge, expects to approximately double its local work force, to 15 employees, within a year.

America Online, soon to be the giant of the county, will open a 220,000-square-foot "technology center" on 25 acres of land in the Battlefield Business Park by April 2000. The center is the company's largest investment in a single facility ever announced -- and the fourth-largest in Virginia ever, Briley reported.

AOL, which is investing $520 million in the new facility, said it will hire 175 employees initially, with 125 of those being local. Firms such as AOL may help with the commuter exodus issue the county faces.

Briley said the county has to push to keep its workers in the region. Fifty percent of residents "transport north," he said, with 67,000 driving more than 50 minutes to get to work. The county hopes to make Prince William an area for local employment possibilities, keeping local residents at work here rather than in the District or other areas.

He also said the need for local contractors is strong: "Build us a building and we'll bring you the clients." Prince William County's commercial vacancy rate on its 2 million square feet of office space is at 7.1 percent, compared with Fairfax County's 71.3 million square feet of office space with a vacancy rate of 3.9 percent.

John Hampton, president of the Prince William-66 Partnership, reported a marketing campaign, which included direct mailings, that is designed to bring more companies to the western side of the county. Hot growth areas in Virginia, like Fairfax, have "a sign up that says, `No Vacancy,' " he said. "Prince William County still has a lot of space."