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What Northern Virginia must do to stay economically strong

Wednesday - 1/15/2014, 11:08am  ET

Northern Virginia economic development leaders, all salesmen at heart, spent much of a panel discussion Tuesday touting their respective jurisdiction’s strengths.

Loudoun as a data center hub. Prince William as a center for biotech. Fairfax as the enduring success story.

But those successes are not guaranteed to continue, officials said during NAIOP’s Northern Virginia economic development update forum at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner. Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Arlington and Alexandria each face serious challenges despite their relatively strong economies.

In Fairfax, it’s landing the next big thing. In Arlington, it’s escaping BRAC. In Prince William, it’s building a business community from the ground up.

"We have to work a little harder, with a little more focus, and not take anything for granted," Jeffrey Kaczmarek, executive director of Prince William County’s Department of Economic Development, said during the forum moderated by developer Bob Buchanan.

The next wave of tech growth will be in personalized medicine — the merger of life sciences and IT, said Jerry Gordon, president of Fairfax County’s Economic Development Authority. The county wants to attract the budding businesses in that sector.

But those firms, Gordon said, will go where the discoveries are being made. The discoveries will be made where the scientists are. The scientists will go where the money is. And the money, venture capital and research dollars isn’t in Northern Virginia.

"We’re playing catch-up," Gordon said.

Another problem for Fairfax: a massive volume of vacant office space — 18 million square feet or 17 percent of the jurisdiction’s inventory. The amount of vacant commercial space in Fairfax is more than the total office space in Richmond.

"Our focus has to be 'office, office, office,'" Gordon said, "fill the empty space."

In Loudoun, it's the opposite. While Fairfax County’s neighbor to the north and west is booming as a data center hub, its commercial office sector is evolving painfully slowly. Developers want to build residential, and as a result, Loudoun is struggling to afford its new residential population when the commercial tax base remains weak.

“We have to continue to build our commercial sector with some ferocity,” said Buddy Rizer, the recently installed director of Loudoun’s economic development office.

Alexandria’s struggle — workforce housing and job training. Prince William County, meanwhile, is working to stay relevant, to “sharpen the marketing message” in a region of “big dogs,” Kaczmarek said.

The region as a whole, Kaczmarek said, “needs to diversify,” to stop relying whole hog on the federal government as its source of economic development.

“I think we have gotten a little fat and happy in the D.C. area,” he said.

© 2014 American City Business Journals, Inc.