Prince William County, long known as a home to biker bars, cheap townhouses and discount shopping, has caught up to its richer neighbors in the region, according to recent Census Bureau figures.
The numbers show that the county has a median household income of nearly $83,000 -- about a $12,000 jump in one year. The Census Bureau ranks the county third in the nation in median household income, behind only Somerset County, N.J., and Howard County.
The data are based on an annual national survey of about 800,000 households across the nation. Statistically, the Census Bureau says there is no significant difference among the top 10, which also includes Montgomery and Fairfax counties, even though the numbers show Prince William slightly ahead of Fairfax. Loudoun County, Arlington County and Alexandria did not meet the population cutoff to be included in the report on local median incomes.
The caveats didn't stifle a bit of crowing in Prince William, which has been nursing an inferiority complex for decades. Now, finally, county leaders are hoping for a little respect.
"We have been the Rodney Dangerfield of communities," said Sean T. Connaughton, Republican lawyer and chairman of the Board of County Supervisors. "This validates what we have been touting for some time: Prince William is undergoing fundamental change in its demographics and is becoming a community of choice."
What is driving the dramatic change in Prince William are 20,000 houses built in the past five years -- a 20 to 25 percent increase in housing stock, Connaughton said. Most of the new homes are larger, on bigger lots and worth much more than the county's older houses and townhouses.
But some economists are skeptical of the numbers illustrating Prince William's new strength.
"Prince William is an increasingly affluent county, but there's no way it's richer than Fairfax," said Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria. "Maybe there is some distortion due to a high proportion of housing units bought at the high end, or people heavily leveraged -- acting in a kind of housing boom mentality."
Lang said the Census Bureau report is based on a relatively small sample, making it statistically less reliable than a larger survey.
Stephen S. Fuller, a regional economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, also had trouble believing the Census data but said it still could be evidence that Prince William has managed to dramatically change its economic profile in a short time.
"They are building much better housing than they used to build," Fuller said. "It's more like Fairfax."
Many of the new homes are in the booming western part of Prince William, near Lake Manassas, Gainesville and Haymarket, near where the Walt Disney Corp. wanted to build a theme park.
Susan Jacobs, an agent with Long & Foster Realtors in Manassas, said many of the expensive houses are being bought by people moving up from townhouses in Fairfax or other inner suburbs.
"They are making their money off their equity," Jacobs said. "They are taking their profits and, because interest rates are so low, moving up to an a $800,000 house with similar payments."
That is how Alyson and Kevin Skinner did it. Three years ago, they were renting an older rambler in Herndon. Then they bought in Prince William and, after making a tidy profit selling that home, they bought a $977,490 brick mansion on 10 acres just down the road. Their street is so new that it's not yet on road maps.
Everything about their new abode is super-sized, from the family room's 20-foot ceilings, to the acres of granite in the kitchen to the twin SUVs in the garage. Even the family dog, Melik, is huge -- a Great Dane.
Alyson Skinner said she and her husband, both 31, wanted space for themselves and their 1-year-old daughter. "We work all day and spend time in traffic, and we wanted a home where we can be away -- we didn't want to live on top of people. We couldn't afford that in Herndon or Reston."
For Alyson, an advertising executive, and Kevin, a dentist, Prince William is not so far out, because they don't consider the District the center of their world.
"In my world, with my friends, the 'center' -- whatever that is -- is Tysons Corner," she said.
The influx of affluent young families and comfortable retirees is changing the exurbs in myriad ways. The newcomers are adding to road congestion, creating the need for more schools and firehouses and converting small rural outposts into 21st-century boomtowns.
And higher expectations of government services have put pressure on local governments and school districts accustomed to a slower way of doing business.
"There are a lot of things that contribute to a community's expectations for schools,'' said Patti Caplan, school system spokeswoman for increasingly affluent Howard. "Level of income is a factor, but so is level of education. And we have both, so we get the double whammy. But it is good, because we have to work hard to live up to the expectations."
The positive news on incomes can also mask growing economic disparity. In Howard, the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches has increased from 9.6 to 11.5 percent in the last two years, school officials said. Prince William County's two hospitals provided more than $40 million in uncompensated care in 2003, up from $30 million in 2002.
Despite the flashy income numbers, Prince William still lacks the infrastructure of affluence that is a given in places such as Potomac or McLean. Transplants complain of clogged country roads, little upscale shopping and few dining opportunities finer than the local Applebee's.
Every grand opening of a trendy ice cream shop or rumor of a high-end eatery sends waves of anticipation through Prince William's new cul-de-sacs.
A Harris Teeter market, complete with wine consultant and sushi bar, is scheduled to open in 2006. Car dealer Don Beyer is planning to open a Land Rover/Jaguar/Volvo dealership in western Prince William next year.
"The inner suburbs are largely built out, so people who want to build a beautiful home in the Washington area have to come to Prince William, which has generally been friendlier than Loudoun for new home growth," Beyer said. "It's going to be a great place to do business for a long time to come."
Alyson Skinner says she can't wait. "I know it's coming. I'm so happy the Super Target opened. I know we're going to get a Harris Teeter. I can see it coming," she said. "I just pray they don't put in another Golden Corral.''