Economic development officials are usually heralding companies moving into the area. Recently, however, they've found plenty to brag about from companies already here.

"It's not about the business moving from other [counties]," said Roger Snyder, Manassas director of community development. "Expansion [of existing companies] is the number one way we can grow our economic base."

A prime example is AHC Inc., a health-care service company that moved to Prince William County in September 1998 with 75 employees. Today, the company has nearly 200 employees.

AHC's growth was just one of a recent flurry of announcements that companies already settled in the county are growing.

"I think this [expansion] has been going on for several years, and it just doesn't get reported all the time," said Stephen S. Fuller, a regional analyst at George Mason University. "It just seems like there's a sudden spurt."

The upcoming election might be one reason economic development officials are touting business expansions, Fuller said, but the growth of companies such as AHC speaks for itself.

AHC announced this week that it has doubled in size in its first year as a business resident in the county. It also plans to start negotiations to possibly take over part of the building next to its present space in the Battlefield Business Park.

The company, whose primary business is helping hospitals with their insurance claims, told Prince William Economic Development Department officials it would add 25 employees by the end of 1999. So far, it has added more 120 new employees since it moved here.

Traditionally, the county and the Economic Development Department's goal has been to pull new companies into Prince William. But this year, talk of existing companies expanding within the county has officials just as excited.

When AHC moved its headquarters from Warrenton to the AT&T building at Battlefield Business Park last year, it occupied just half of its 52,000 square feet of leased space, said Robert Smith, AHC executive vice president. Today, the company fills almost all of its leased space, Smith said.

"We're growing at a rate of about five to 10 new employees per month," Smith said. "That's the exciting part--how our business has grown."

And that's what the county Economic Development Department is banking on right now: continued growth of companies already settled here.

Martin J. Briley, the agency's executive director, said he is "delighted" with the company's growth. That, along with an expansion of AmeriServe, the Manassas branch of the food distribution company, promises to create--and has created--new jobs. "We consider that a good day."

Dallas-based AmeriServe, one of the nation's largest food service distributors, announced this week that it will more than double the size of its Manassas distribution center in the Wellington Industrial Corridor. The center has been located in the county since 1987.

The expansion, from 100,337 to 215,837 square feet of space, will accommodate the consolidation of a small AmeriServe facility in Virginia Beach into the Manassas center.

With that expansion comes an expected increase of 255 new jobs in the county by 2001, said Ed Joy, division president.

The expansion at the Wellington Industrial Corridor covers 11.4 acres and will cost the company almost $11 million.

The Board of County Supervisors approved a transfer of $76,000 to the Prince William Industrial Development Authority to assist AmeriServe with land acquisition, site development, infrastructure improvement and work-force training.

Community Development Director Snyder said helping businesses already located in Manassas is as important as helping businesses move there.

"I'd rather help 100 businesses add 10 percent than spend all my time getting another semiconductor plant," Snyder said. "I'd rather have an economic base built by [many] happy businesses than be dependent on a few monoliths."

The new expansion and consolidation of the AmeriServe center in Virginia Beach to this area will be more convenient and centrally located for the company's other major facilities, Joy said.

The center distributes food and supplies to about 2,400 quick-service restaurants, including Burger King, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District.

AmeriServe is in the process of consolidating distribution operations--such as the Virginia Beach center--in areas where multiple centers exist.

If the existing businesses here expand, then they will "be our best ambassadors," Snyder said.

"Anyone we're trying to recruit is going to make the rounds without us knowing," he said. "If the existing businesses aren't happy, they're going to bad-mouth us" and no businesses will relocate to the county.

"These are good jobs, and it's a good sign that we're making great progress," said Kathleen K. Seefeldt (D), chairman of the supervisors. "These announcements will continue to grow."

CAPTION: Robert Smith, left, and Lawrence Reid have grown AHC Inc. from 75 to nearly 200 employees since moving to Prince William.