For decades, Mount Vernon residents have tried to harness the area’s rich history in a string of attempts to remake a portion of Route 1 that has long been marked by rent-by-the-hour motels, boarded-up buildings and auto repair shops.
As part of a new effort, a sign reading “Gateway to America’s Historic Heritage” welcomes visitors to a stretch of highway where community leaders recently approved plans to attract high-rise apartment buildings and restaurants — all a short drive away from George Washington’s iconic mansion.
But some local leaders say the revitalization attempts are in danger of being derailed because Fairfax County officials gave approval to an auto title loan company to move into a vacant lot that was part of those plans.
Where residents of Mount Vernon hope for office plazas, townhouses and cafes, they are instead looking at the possibility of another brightly lit sign offering fast cash with cars as collateral and interest rates as high as 342 percent. A four-mile stretch of Route 1 that cuts through Mount Vernon is already home to seven auto title loan companies.
“People are angry about it,” said Edythe Kelleher, who as executive director of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation has overseen efforts to attract new development. “What we clearly need here are high-end, family-oriented businesses.”
Kelleher’s nonprofit economic development group and neighborhood organizations envision an overhaul in the area that promotes that section of Route 1 as the “North Gateway” to Fairfax County, where office towers rise along the corridor and cyclists ride on bike paths near trendy restaurants, hotels and cafes.
The vacant lot near Huntington Avenue, a former gas station, is a key component of those plans, area leaders said. It has not yet been sold to TitleMax, a company spokesman said.
While those plans are being promoted, Route 1 has become a prime spot for title loan companies after a 2011 Virginia law allowed such businesses to accept out-of-state automobile titles. Overall in Virginia, the industry has grown from 184 companies in 2010 to 480 today, state records show.
Critics of that expansion said the presence of such companies in struggling neighborhoods makes it more difficult to attract new development.
“A lot of it is perception,” Kelleher said. “There is a perception issue down here, and I think these lenders do nothing but add to the negative perception.”
County officials, who have poured extra resources into revitalizing the Route 1 corridor, said there is little that they can do to regulate that growth because the businesses move to areas already zoned to permit financial institutions.
But frustrated leaders are exploring ways to discourage the arrival of more auto title loan companies. They point to Virginia’s Chesterfield County, which is moving to limit those operations to shopping centers and other commercial buildings with multiple businesses. Stand-alone buildings would not be approved for title loan operations.
Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said another option would be to reclassify auto title loan companies.
“Right now, we classify them as financial institutions, which is an insult to banks in my mind,” said McKay, whose district includes a portion of the Route 1 corridor.
McKay said the area is poised for a recovery after some hotels, a shopping center and a Costco superstore were developed in recent years, with new families moving close to the Huntington Metro station.
But with momentum moving slowly, he said, “the last thing we need is one more thing that ties our hands behind our backs.”
Neighbors said that the area where budget motels, nightclubs and pawn shops are also along the highway has been a magnet for crime.
Since January, that part of Mount Vernon has seen 28 assaults, 12 sex crimes and scores of robberies, thefts and drug-related offenses, county police records show.
“All I do is continuously call the police,” said Brian Elson, president of a local homeowners association, who complained about panhandling and prostitution in the neighborhood.
“These establishments are attracting folks who don’t care about the community around them,” Elson said of auto title loan companies.
Supporters of the auto title loan companies argue that their presence can be positive.
Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) said the industry’s expansion illustrates a demand for small loans that banks are not meeting.
“There are not a lot of other lenders out there aggressively pursuing people who need these small loans, which is too bad, because I think they can offer them a better deal,” said Sickles, who, like several other state lawmakers, has been a regular recipient of campaign contributions from title loan businesses.
Others argued that any new business is good for cleaning up the long-blighted area.
The former gas station site is filled with weeds. Several years ago, the property’s owner — Sunoco gas — had sought to build another gas station there, but that plan was rejected over zoning issues, officials said.
Down the road, another title loan company took over what was a palm reading operation before that building became abandoned and run-down.
The building has since been fixed up. On a recent day, it was decorated with tinsel and other holiday trimmings.
Inside, a worker who declined to identify herself was busy with a constantly ringing phone.
“They put a lot of money into it,” she said about the red-and-yellow building, before taking another call.