At the Willston Shopping Center near Seven Corners in Falls Church, retail business has fallen off in the last few years.
It has fallen off so much, in fact, that, when the Hot Shoppes closed down five years ago, it was boarded up and left to deteriorate.
But help is on the way in the form of low-interest loans for the Willston area and Fairfax County's notoriously blighted Route One corridor.
Two weeks ago, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted to allow the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority to issue tax-exempt industrial development bonds to raise low-cost money for commericial and retail redevelopment projects in the Willston and Route One areas.
Such bonds would provide financing for redevelopment projects at interest rates well below market levels, even possibly as low as 25 percent below prevailing interest rates, said Fairfax's deputy county executive for management and budget, James P. McDonald.
McDonald, the primary caretaker of Fairfax County's coveted triple-A bond rating, stressed that, although the County Board of Supervisors would have final approval on all bonds issued by the county housing authority, its stamp of approval would not make the county liable to pay off the bonds if the private development companies defaulted.
"There is no question that there is no legal or moral liability of the full faith and credit of the board being pledged," said McDonald. "The board has been very scrupulous about the bonding authority of the economic development and housing authorities, so that it would not be perceived as affecting their bond rating."
Although the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority also issues tax-exempt bonds, it is prohibited under its charter from issuing bonds for retail projects.
In the past, that restriction has seriously curtailed the redevelopment of those areas of the county that most need financial help, said Fairfax Supervisor Thomas M. Davis (R-Mason).
Davis supported the proposal to extend bonding authority for retail establishments to the county housing authority. He said he is working with a task force of landlords, developers and community residents in formulating a plan to bring new life to the Willston Shopping Center.
"Without these incentives, we couldn't bring quality development into these areas," said Davis. "At Willston, we're talking about getting funding to have the Safeway rebuilt. We may try to get an International Safeway in there--go for the big one."
Davis, who represents a district that was developed 30 years ago and that is beginning to degenerate, said other county board members supported the proposal because either they had similar problems in their districts or they recognized that it was merely a matter of time before redevelopment of old retail buildings would become a problem for their areas.
The regulations adopted along with the proposal prohibit the housing authority from issuing bonds to any development that is not in a designated "rehabilitation district." Although only Seven Corners and Route One qualify at this point, Davis said the board is considering a similar designation for parts of the Merrifield area along Gallows Road and Route 50 and Bailey's Crossroads.
But board Chairman John F. Herrity said he hopes that the housing authority's new task would be switched to the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, and he said that he would not support expanding the number of rehabilitation districts in the county until that happened.
"The housing authority is so messed up just with their housing programs, I could not personally support their issuing bonds for retail businesses outside of the Route One Corridor," said Herrity. "We either get permission from the state legislature to have the EDA do it or I won't support it."
The board voted to ask area representatives in the Virginia General Assembly to seek a revision to the county EDA's charter to enable to EDA to take over the responsibility for loans to retail businesses. However, county staff said it was impossible to predict whether such a change would be made in next year's legislative session.
"I guess we'll just continue to do the work as long as we have permission," said Virginia Johnson, a spokesperson for the housing authority.
The housing authority already is looking at two applications for IDA bonds, both of which would be used on Route One projects, Johnson said. The first is a $3.5 million bond request to fund redevelopment of a shopping center at Huntington Gateway, and the second is a $5 million bond proposal for an office building at Beltway Center.