Bucking the slow-growth political trend, both Prince William chambers of commerce have joined a pro-growth coalition of Northern Virginia business interests.
REGION -- Responsible Economic Growth In Our Nation -- was founded in January to support education, transportation and work force development issues and to counteract the slow-growth movement that has become so prominent in Northern Virginia. The Prince William chambers joined REGION's steering committee in May.
Traci DeGroat, president of the Prince William-Greater Manassas Chamber of Commerce, explained that the organization will watch trends of "groups that have developed who are no-growth or slow-growth groups . . . who have gotten a lot of press and are very active."
REGION's aim is to promote economic growth without necessarily encouraging "runaway residential growth," DeGroat said.
"People recognize that runaway residential growth can be a burden to our government, roads, schools," DeGroat said. "But we don't want to stop all that growth because business growth isn't contributing to those problems. We want to come up with solutions."
REGION, DeGroat said, will try to "create solutions that will allow economic development without causing more problems with residential development."
REGION is made up of area business groups and neighboring chambers. The starting point was the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, which immediately involved other business groups and chambers. Washington Gas Light Co., America Online Inc., the Northern Virginia Tech Council and George Mason University are among the 25 members.
The group is not just another organization tackling transportation issues, said Buck Waters, the point man between area members and the organization. "We're looking for viable, real-world solutions" to the problems associated with growth, he said.
Such problems include lack of schools and classrooms to accommodate the region's baby boom, along with traffic and other transportation problems.
"The quality of life is so important," Waters said. "And we often measure that in minutes." Time that workers spend stuck in traffic may lure businesses elsewhere, for example.
"We need to address these problems, because if we don't soon, we could be losing out on business," Waters said.
Business today, he stressed, is mobile. Companies and workers don't have to stay where they originally settled, because of telecommuting and technology, so the areas where companies are based have to accommodate the business growth in order to continue boosting its economic development.
"It's the tech sector that's creating our surpluses," he said. "But tech can be anywhere. It doesn't have to be in Northern Virginia." So REGION hopes to fix any problems that arise from growth so that the businesses stay, he said.
The stress on the local infrastructure could be enough to drive off the businesses the county so desperately wants. REGION members hope to solve the problems before companies start moving away and eventually improve the area in a way that will draw businesses here.
"We're not adamant pro-growth," DeGroat said. "We want balanced and quality growth."
Todd Stottlemyer, outgoing chairman of Fairfax County chamber and executive vice president and CFO of Fairfax-based BTG Inc., an information technology company, said "no other group on a regional basis is putting forth meaningful solutions."
"We need a plan for our growth," he said. "What we haven't done is invest and reinvest in the infrastructure."
Much of REGION's focus will be on money. DeGroat said the organization will be discussing how to bring money back to the localities. Its strategies will largely look at how to get the state to help cope with the impact of new residents by paying for some costs of additional roads and services, she said.
Michael Carlin, chairman of REGION's steering committee and director of public affairs for Washington Gas, said that in the short term, REGION wants the state to redirect a portion of revenue from income tax to give to local governments in Northern Virginia "to invest in our schools and roads," he said. "We need to look at our tax policy in Virginia to sustain our economy."
Katherine Waters, president of the Prince William Regional Chamber, said her chamber hopes to address the needs of infrastructure -- education and transportation. She also is hoping for a restructuring of the tax system to benefit local governments and businesses.
REGION plans to launch a grass roots education campaign, talk with elected officials, and introduce legislation in the upcoming session, Carlin said.
DeGroat said: "We want to look at a whole variety of potential solutions and we will create a greater growth policy.".
Being part of REGION, along with faster growth areas such as Fairfax and Loudoun counties, will have virtues and vices, she said. The solutions each member comes up with may suit only part of the organization's committee. "Our chamber feels that it's going to be somewhat complex in reaching solutions that will fit fairly with both Loudoun and Prince William County," she said. "We're all very different because of demographics. We wanted to make sure our voice was heard."
CAPTION: Traci DeGroat, president of the Prince William-Greater Manassas Chamber of Commerce, is working to help local businesses grow in a slow-growth climate.