Low construction costs, educated workforce, business-friendly government, good infrastructure, location and relatively inexpensive, large tracts of land set Prince William County apart as a hot spot for business development in the Greater Washington, D.C. Metro area according to a panel made up of business experts and educators.
The panel was part of an event entitled "Greater Washington's Crossroads of Innovation, Science and Technology" recently hosted by the County's Department of Economic Development and the Washington Business Journal at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. The group discussed Prince William County's outlook for the future and said that business leaders across the region and country are beginning to take notice as more life sciences and technology firms set up shop in the county.
John Ryan, a commercial real estate developer, said Prince William County is one of the largest industrial and data service markets in the D.C. Metro area. "We've got about 15 million square feet of space [in the D.C. Metro area], and there's only about a 2 percent vacancy in warehouse space in Prince William County. We're seeing a lot of new activity in the industrial market."
Several of the panelists reminded the audience that much of Prince William County's educated workforce comes out of the Northern Virginia Community College, which produces more information and technology graduates than any other community college in the country.
Panelist Scott Ralls, the president of Northern Virginia Community College, said the community college chose to put its Workforce Development Center in Woodbridge because of its proximity to Quantico Marine Corps Base and Fort Belvoir. "It could be located anywhere," Ralls said of the center. "It's located there because it's kind of a convergence of strategic thinkers and doers."
Ross M. Dunlap, the president and CEO of the biotech company Ceresnanoscience, said Prince William County officials and staff have put a lot of support behind the industry and have worked to bring firms together at its Science Accelerator near George Mason University. "This is a wonderful location; and there is that growing synergistic community of scientists that's forming here."
Dunlap went on to say that Northern Virginia Community College graduates people with the knowhow to work in the industry, which will attract more high-tech and science firms. "NOVA … is pushing out graduates who have excellent skills. We get great resources at a great value in this area."
Location played another role in bringing Dunlap's firm to the county. "We're 30 minutes from two airports that everybody in the world knows about," Dunlap said. "We can talk to a company in Europe; we can talk to a company on the West Coast, and we say … look we're only 30 minutes from Dulles. They say, 'Oh. I know exactly where you are,' and stop by on the way to D.C."
Roadside Development bought land to build Potomac Town Center in 2006, just before the Great Recession hit. The company had to adjust as the economy plunged and potential tenants pulled out, said Richard Lake the development company's founder.
Lake said the county worked with his company so that the project could stay alive and that Prince William Board of County Supervisors had the "vision" and the commitment to make the project work. "The county was terrific because we were able to be flexible around development. We were able to reorganize some of the residential that was approved so we could get to the marketplace faster --- all things that were really important to us."
Lake also said that working with the Prince William Board of County Supervisors was different than working with officials in other jurisdictions. "We had tremendous access to the supervisors. I think that is unique."
From his point of view, Lake said, retailers have a misconception about what Prince William County is. The county is among the top 10 wealthiest counties in the country with a highly educated population. Lower housing costs give people in Prince William County more buying power, which retailers are coming to recognize. "Prince William County has a unique opportunity and has a unique offering because this is… where a lot of families have grown up and a lot of businesses are starting to come."