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Bid for FBI building sets off regional competition

Saturday - 4/20/2013, 5:54pm  ET

FILE - This Feb. 3, 2012, file photo shows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, which opened in 1974. The FBI's announcement that it needs a new home has touched off a virtual real estate beauty contest in the greater Washington metropolitan area, with communities around the region jockeying for the opportunity to attract the law enforcement agency, and attendant economic benefits, to their neighborhoods. The bureau wants to move more than 10,000 employees spread among leased annexes throughout the region into a secure consolidated headquarters near the highway and mass transit. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

ERIC TUCKER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The FBI's announcement that it needs a new home has touched off a virtual real estate beauty contest, with communities around the region jockeying for the opportunity to attract the law enforcement agency -- and attendant economic benefits -- to their neighborhoods.

The pursuit has turned congressmen from neighboring states into competing pitchmen, spurred newspaper op-eds and even required a public apology from an economic development official who disparaged another community bidding for the headquarters. Public debate on Capitol Hill and in the real estate development community has focused on whether an agency whose identity is linked to the nation's capital could find a more suitable home in the Washington suburbs.

"You would expect there to be competition among the jurisdictions for a development project as favorable as the FBI," said Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, who joined counterparts from Virginia in testifying last month before a House subcommittee. "We're all friends. We're going to try to sell our jurisdictions as the best sites."

The contenders include Maryland's Prince George's County, already home to federal agencies specializing in intelligence research and cybersecurity. Northern Virginia proponents boast of the area's high-quality schools and proximity to the CIA headquarters and other existing FBI facilities, including its training academy, in the area. The District of Columbia is also offering a waterfront site near highways, public transit and a major league baseball stadium.

The General Services Administration, which oversees federal office space, has received about three-dozen submissions following its request for ideas to develop a new headquarters of approximately 2.1 million square feet.

One idea under consideration is a property swap in which a developer would take over the existing FBI headquarters in exchange for constructing or providing a new building for the agency. That arrangement would allow the government to save on costs of a new land acquisition while a developer would get the chance to build the new headquarters and repurpose a downtown city block.

The level of interest isn't surprising: At stake is a multi-million-dollar economic development project that would bring thousands of jobs, expand the tax base and boost area retail and service industries.

"Think about the daytime population, people coming to the FBI headquarters morning, noon and night," said Douglas Cooper or the Urban Land Institute in Washington, a nonprofit research group. "Think about the potential for people relocating from one jurisdiction to the other to be closer to work."

The FBI's current headquarters, a hulking Brutalist structure that began housing workers in 1974 on prime Pennsylvania Avenue real estate, is known by many Americans for its appearances in news broadcasts and movies. Millions have visited for tours, which are now discontinued.

But the FBI says the J. Edgar Hoover Building is now obsolete, inefficient and in disrepair. Those findings were confirmed by a 2011 Government Accountability Office report that agreed the building didn't meet the agency's long-term security needs.

The bureau wants to move more than 10,000 employees spread among leased annexes throughout the region into a secure consolidated headquarters somewhere in the region. It says a new headquarters could save at least $44 million in rent payments annually.

The competition manifested itself at a House subcommittee hearing last month, when congressmen normally accustomed to uniting behind joint regional interests took turns trumpeting the virtues of each one's state.

Maryland officials are pushing a site near a mass transit station in Prince George's County, which officials say is already home to about a quarter of the region's federal workforce as well as agencies and installations like NASA and Joint Base Andrews, a military facility.

Virginia officials have touted a GSA warehouse facility in Fairfax County -- between the existing headquarters and the FBI training academy in Quantico -- which they say would allow for easy access to the airports, Capitol Hill and the White House.

The states have selectively cited studies and statistics to bolster their case. Maryland officials say more headquarters employees live in their state than in D.C. or Virginia; representatives from Virginia have made similar assertions.

The debate has also included discussion of the region's demographic and economic differences. Fairfax County, ranked among the nation's highest-income counties, says the headquarters would be another boon to an already-thriving region, while Prince George's County officials see a chance to help the county catch up to its more affluent neighbors.

"These sorts of locations and these sorts of decisions are not based really on who needs it the most for different reasons," said Sharon Bulova, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "It's not that Fairfax County doesn't need it and that Prince George's County does. I would be very surprised if the FBI and the federal government make a decision on who needs it most. It should be on the merits."

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