The battle between Fairfax and Prince George’s counties over which will build a new FBI headquarters is being fought inch by inch through the long, tedious process of vetting sites and proposals.
Then there is the behind-the-scenes politicking, and on that point Virginia officials think last month’s elections gave the commonwealth a level playing field.
While two veteran Virginia lawmakers will step down when the new Congress begins in January, it is Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland’s loss of control of the powerful Appropriations Committee that may help the commonwealth land the largest federal campus since the CIA’s Langley headquarters was completed in 1961.
“I think the recent election bodes well for Virginia,” Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff McKay (D) said. “I wish it didn’t, but in the real world I think it does, at least when it comes to the FBI.”
At issue is an attempted swap by the General Services Administration of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, one of the most valuable development sites to become available in downtown Washington in decades, for a new 2.1 million-square-foot campus that will consolidate 11,000 FBI workers from 20 locations around the region.
While the GSA has initiated several such swaps to get around congressional spending restrictions, this one takes place on an unprecedented scale and under the scrutiny of local lawmakers. Three sites have been chosen by the GSA as finalists: Springfield in Fairfax and Greenbelt and Landover, both in Prince George’s.
Virginians claim that Maryland lawmakers in general and Mikulski in particular have exerted political pressure for the headquarters to be moved to their state. Although the decision rests with the executive branch, Mikulski, as appropriations chairwoman, may have had particular influence in the case of a swap that did not cover the full cost of the new building.
“They want everyone at GSA to know that if they pick Virginia there’s going to be pain later,” one Virginia Democratic staffer said.
Now Mikulski will hand over her gavel to a Republican, and nearly the entire Maryland delegation will sit in the minority. Virginians hope that shift will blunt the argument from state and local officials that Prince George’s deserves this project after being repeatedly passed over by the federal government. But Maryland lawmakers also say the Greenbelt site should win on its merits.
“I personally advocate for Maryland,” said Mikulski, but “I don’t think it’s about Democrats or Republicans. I think it’s about the FBI.”
Likewise, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said “the politics always cuts multiple ways,” and he is confident Prince George’s will prevail thanks to “the best location,” not clout.
Despite Mikulski’s diminished role, Maryland’s chances are probably improved by a more organized, concerted effort from Prince George’s officials than was ever assembled under previous county executive Jack B. Johnson, incarcerated after a corruption conviction.
Working closely with state officials, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has put together a subsidy package that could be worth as much as $190 million to support the Greenbelt proposal.
County officials say they are arranging similar support for a bid to bring the FBI to the former Landover Mall, and they are confident that the FBI would boost the economy.
A report commissioned by the county’s partner in Greenbelt, Renard Development, and produced by Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute, determined that the FBI headquarters could produce $1.1 billion in economic output. And if Renard adds 2 million square feet of offices, housing, hotels and retail, it could bring the total to $3.5 billion and 21,000 jobs.
Fairfax has not done an economic assessment for the site, as Prince George’s has, maybe in part because the FBI, unlike Defense Department units, does not attract a lot of private contractors and the associated property taxes. Aside from a poorly received joke about crime in Prince George’s, Fairfax Economic Development Authority chief Gerald Gordon has not been prominent in the FBI effort.
“The EDA fills office buildings; they don’t really do land-use stuff,” McKay said. Should the Springfield location be chosen, he said, the EDA’s role “traditionally would be to work with the private-sector land around the site.”
Virginians have expressed concern in the past that a classified CIA facility on the Springfield property will scuttle their bid. Officials say it’s an added financial concern, not an insurmountable obstacle.
“There’s costs involved with the current tenants,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said.
Maryland lawmakers have said that a plurality of FBI employees live in their state, relying on a report from their own economic development department. But those numbers are extrapolated from general census data; the FBI has refused to say where its employees reside. Virginia officials argue that FBI workers would rather be close to Quantico, where their training academy is located.
Once two Maryland sites were named, politicking between the two developers that control them picked up steam. Lerner Enterprises, the company led by Washington Nationals owner Theodore N. Lerner, and its co-owners of the Landover Mall property have spent $143,000 this year with Dickstein Shapiro to employ a pair of former Maryland members of Congress, Sen. Joseph Tydings and Rep. Albert Wynn, to lobby on GSA issues, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Locally, the Lerners have also enlisted the help of Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), the former candidate for lieutenant governor. Renard has employed Manis Canning & Associates to win support.
To get the complex built, the GSA has initiated two overlapping competitions: one for the best piece of land and the other for the best development deal it can get in exchange for the Hoover building, which is crumbling and dated but sits on 6.7 acres of highly valuable land.
All three finalists, chosen after more than a year of vetting and consultation, have different forms of ownership. The GSA owns the Springfield site, Metro owns the site in Greenbelt but has partnered with a private developer, and Lerner Enterprises and other private parties own the Landover site.
Next month, the GSA will begin seeking developers interested in building an FBI headquarters on any of the sites in exchange for the Hoover building. In a best-case scenario for the GSA, competition for the Hoover building will be so intense that it will be able to complete a straight swap. In that case, Norman Dong, commissioner of the GSA’s Public Buildings Service, said he may not need Congress to act.
Major pitfalls remain, however. House Republicans have questioned whether the GSA’s proposed swap is appropriate, and real estate professionals who are closely studying the proposal say the GSA is unlikely to reap enough money from Hoover to pay for a new FBI campus. One executive closely tracking the deal estimated that a new FBI campus could cost $1.2 billion while the Hoover building could fetch about $500 million, leaving a $700 million funding gap.
Congress could then be called upon to allow additional spending, which could make Mikulski’s diminished position hurt.
“If there is a [funding] gap, probably Mikulski would have been in a better position to address it previously,” said a former federal official who asked not to be named so he could speak freely about the competition. “But what was always said privately about Prince George’s County is that they tried to rely on politics to get things rather than sharpen their pencils and figure out subsidies. It looks like they’re serious about doing that here.”
Even if the Maryland delegation can find the money, it might be delivering a potentially enormous economic development win to the state’s new Republican governor. “The Democrats now run the risk of giving Larry Hogan credit for bringing the FBI to Maryland,” the executive said.
Asked how politics or the election might affect the swap, Dong said his agency is focused on the logistics of the deal. “Our focus is heads down. We’ve got a project plan. We are committed to executing the project plan.”