Prince William County and George Mason University have agreed to help finance a $56 million performing arts center near Manassas styled after a famous European opera house, another sign that the county is positioning itself as a cultural and business center for Northern Virginia.

A four-story, 1,100-seat performance hall will be the centerpiece of a larger cultural complex to be built at GMU's Prince William campus and financed by the university, the county, the city of Manassas and private funds. Promoters compared the hall to the La Scala opera house in Milan.

A dizzying string of announcements -- including that the county has experienced more job growth than any large county in the United States and that it has plans for its first luxury hotel and conference center -- is transforming Prince William's image from that of the region's country cousin.

"Prince William is one of the driving economic engines in Northern Virginia," Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said. "The community has evolved from being not only where people sleep, but now developing their own kind of cultural life, business centers."

With million-dollar homes in Haymarket, planned riverfront high-rises in Woodbridge, a growing biotechnology industry centered near George Mason and thousands of new jobs at dozens of new companies, county officials have been rushing from ribbon-cuttings to groundbreakings. And there are more plans -- for high-end grocery stores and even a Jaguar dealership.

If anything, the pace of growth and scope of change are accelerating.

Once known mainly for its outlet shopping and inexpensive townhouses, Prince William appears to be coming into its own not only in the region but nationwide, economists and business leaders say. They point to its successful courtship of Eli Lilly and Co., which plans to build a $425 million complex in the county that will employ more than 700 people. Prince William added jobs at the fastest rate of any big county in the United States in the year that ended in March, with an 8 percent rise, according to the Labor Department.

Warner said the county is at the heart of the state's effort to lead in the development of biotechnology. He said the presence of Lilly and American Type Culture Collection, a nonprofit research facility, has changed the face of the county. George Mason announced this week that it will build a $40 million laboratory for its new National Center for Biodefense on its Prince William campus.

"The George Mason presence in Prince William is a real demonstration about how a higher education institution can kick-start other knowledge-based jobs," Warner said.

I think there has been a real change in civic pride in the county," said Sean T. Connaughton (R), the chairman of the Board of County Supervisors. He said when he ran for office five years ago, many residents described themselves as living "south of Fairfax."

"Those who have just arrived see a community that is flourishing. But those who have been here awhile remember how others viewed us," Connaughton said. "And maybe we're the ones who are still a little sensitive."

But, like other fast-growing communities in the Washington area, change also has brought traffic congestion, more pollution, a higher tax burden and municipal services that are stretched to the breaking point. Yesterday, some residents and workers in the area expressed reservations about the expense of a new arts center when the area has other pressing needs.

"Unless you have an unlimited budget, we have to have priorities," said Ray Willis, owner of Old Town Manassas's RW Books. "I would put this further down on the list."

As the county's economic fortunes have been chronicled closely, there also have been shifts in the county's cultural life. With a population rapidly becoming more educated and affluent, there are demands not only for the shopping amenities of closer-in suburbs but a desire for a deeper cultural life.

University and local officials believe that the arts center -- which would be home to such local groups as the Prince William Symphony Orchestra and also would host national and international performers -- will transform and give a new sense of legitimacy to Prince William's arts scene.

"It will reveal to the region the quality of art and artists that, frankly, is indigenous and has been in place for a long time," said Bill Reeder, dean of George Mason's College of Visual and Performing Arts and a former opera singer.

The center is the latest of nearly a dozen such centers to be planned or built in the region, from Bowie to Loudoun County. Its main performance hall will be vertical, with a U-shaped audience seating area and dozens of box seats, leaving almost every patron with a front-rowlike view, officials said.

Hannah Senft, 61, a retired Manassas city government worker and president of the Georgetown South Board of Trustees, welcomed the idea of such an arts center.

"I think it will bring more people into the area and support the businesses," she said. "It will be a nice thing for the people here, so they don't have to go so far for those types of events."

For such local groups as the Manassas Dance Company, the center -- with an additional smaller theater and a rehearsal and performance studio -- will mark an end to performing in high school auditoriums.

"People say, 'Oh really, do you take 3-year-olds?' " said Amy Grant Wolfe, the group's artistic director. She then explains that, no, her group is made up of professional male and female dancers from all over the world.

"We really can be a destination for those who want to hear music, see dance, go to Shakespeare," Wolfe said. "I think this more and more is becoming our identity. We're not just strip malls and Chili's and [T.G.I.] Friday's."

She said that beyond providing a permanent home for her dancers, the center could be the catalyst needed to expand the company into a nationally recognized operation.

GMU plans to open the center by fall 2009, depending on funding, said Brian H. Marcus, associate dean for development at the university's College of Visual and Performing Arts. Construction could begin as soon as summer 2007.

GMU and local officials approved a plan to share the center's $36 million design and construction costs. The county will pay 60 percent, George Mason will pay 30 percent and the city of Manassas will pay 10 percent.

An additional $15 million will be raised privately for an endowment. Other costs include $3 million worth of land being donated by GMU, $1 million for construction and fundraising management and an additional $1 million operating fund, officials said.

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

An architect's rendering of the outside of the $56 million performing arts center planned for George Mason University's Prince William campus.