The first phase of retail development at Virginia Gateway, a 420-acre commercial project in Gainesville, opened this week with a Giant Food Store as its anchor.

Development officials hope that the Gateway Center, as the retail portion of Virginia Gateway is known, will not only provide convenience for Gainesville residents, but will be an attraction for companies thinking of settling in the as-yet-undeveloped office portion of Virginia Gateway. In addition to having the largest Giant in the region, the center will have 15 other stores and restaurants.

Developers say the new retail development could draw companies to settle in other sections of western Prince William County, which has traditionally had much less development than the eastern end.

Virginia Gateway "will act as a town center" of western Prince William, said Jay Norman Jr., vice president of Norman Realty Inc., a Manassas-based real estate agency, referring to similar projects in Reston and Dulles that have become draws for businesses and shoppers. Norman Realty is leasing out 250 acres of the 420-acre Virginia Gateway for the Peterson Cos., the project's developer.

The site is near the Gainesville interchange, between Route 29 and Wellington Road.

"I think [Gateway Center] is spectacular for Gainesville," said Joseph Contrucci, vice president of Prince William-66 Partnership, a nonprofit group promoting economic development along the Interstate 66 corridor of the county. People in the area will now be "adequately served for the fundamental aspects for the basics of life."

The new center will make necessities much more accessible, he said.

"Up until now, everyone had to stop in Manassas or drive down to Warrenton" for groceries, said Paul Weinschenk, vice president for Peterson. "Both of those trips are inconvenient."

Previously, residents had to drive 15 to 20 minutes before reaching any store or restaurant, other than a couple of fast-food places.

In addition to being convenient for area residents, the office park's proximity to the new retail development is key to attracting businesses there, Norman said.

Norman said companies regularly survey potential landlords about an office's proximity to certain establishments, such as banks, dry cleaners and restaurants. Companies, he said, need to have these amenities nearby to retain employees.

With the new Gateway Center, county officials now have an answer for those questions.

"Employers want their employees to have conveniences," Contrucci said. "With the advent of that center, I think you'll find people looking a lot more closely at the properties in that area."

The office buildings for the technology and office park portion of the site are still in design stages, although ground is expected to be broken on the first building in the spring, Norman said. Buildings for the site will be able to house both large companies and small start-ups "ready to move out of their basement," he said.

The site's infrastructure--fiber-optic cables, sewer lines and water--has already been installed.

New Linton Hall Road and Route 29, which surround the site, also were improved--thanks to a community development bond issue that was approved by the Board of County Supervisors solely for the complex. And there are signs that a redevelopment plan for the Gainesville interchange--$86.1 million worth--may be approved, which is another selling point to draw companies.

Now the county and Peterson are busy trying to get the rest of the development occupied. Only 10 acres of the industrial portion of Virginia Gateway is occupied, by a branch of Columbia Gas.

"Now we're working closely with the economic development folks in Prince William County to attract companies," Weinschenk said. "We're seeing real interest in it and hoping that will turn into something."

In addition to Giant, eight other retailers, including GNC Live Well, Domino's Pizza and Samia's Italian Restaurant, are open at the Gateway Center. Seven others will open within 30 days, Weinschenk said.

Peterson is also developing free-standing sites for Mobil, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., First Virginia Bank and Burger King at the site.

The Gateway Center cost about $12 million to build. Infrastructure for the entire site was an additional $5 million.

Ultimately, Peterson plans to build more than 1 million square feet of retail space on Gateway's 130 acres of retail-zoned land and as much as 3 million square feet of office and industrial space on its remaining 290 acres.

Planning and marketing efforts are already underway for the next phase of retail development, an approximately 100,000-square-foot site scheduled to open next year. And a 65,000-square-foot office building is scheduled to open in 2001, company officials said.

CAPTION: Above, Curtis Loud, who works in the meat department of the new Giant Food Store at Virginia Gateway, cooks up samples while Trevor Blank, 5, waits for a taste. At left, Fredi Berge shops for peppers in the 70,000-square-foot store.