The Benefits of BRAC: An Interview with Gerald Gordon
'The details are that you end up in traffic congestion, but we have jobs,' says FCEDA Chief.
Severe traffic aside, Base Realignment and Closure is a net positive for the Northern Virginia economy, according to Dr. Gerald Gordon, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.
“Ghost towns don’t have traffic. Cities with a 15 percent unemployment rate don’t have heavy traffic during rush hour because nobody is going to work,” said Gordon, who spoke with Patch from his office in Tysons Corner. “Our traffic is all these people going to work. It’s hard to argue.”
And Gordon had advice for commuters: "Start early. Adjust your hours. Go in early, go home early. Go in late, come home late. I think that’s the answer. Or go further out, get near a VRE [Virginia Railway Express] station, and take the train. Carpool."
At Least Northern Virginians Have Jobs...
At 3.7 percent, Arlington has the lowest unemployment rate in the Commonwealth, followed by 4.2 percent for Alexandria City and 4.3 percent for Fairfax County. The national unemployment rate is 8.7 percent and Virginia's is 6 percent.
"When the unemployment rate hits 3.4 here, that means that it’s gonna be seven, eight, 10 percent nationally. And that’s when people stop complaining about the traffic congestion—because they’re on their way to work in that congestion. Whereas everybody has … friends who are losing their jobs, losing their homes … they’re unable to pay their bills, their kids can’t go to college."
More workers in the area means more high-end stores and restaurants. "People who have that kind of income to spend also want upscale restaurants and they don't want to have to drive to Fair Lakes or to Tysons Corner to go to a good mall or go into the City," Gordon said. "So you start to see the beginnings of higher-end retail."
Jobs and Tax Revenue
By Sept. 15, thousands of federal employees will move to offices at Fort Belvoir, the Engineer Proving Ground and Alexandria’s Mark Center off Interstate 395 and Seminary Road.
“The impacts are potentially as much as 50,000 [employees] when you add in the secondary and tertiary workers - people who work to support businesses or provide services to the folks going to Belvoir,” said Gordon. “For [Fairfax County], it's jobs, for people who then will want to have office space nearby because they provide goods and services under contract. That's going to generate tax revenues in the real estate tax base.”
Local businesses will also benefit, said Gordon. "BRAC leads to jobs because people come in and need to have a place to live," he said. "When they move their families in they need to buy groceries, they're going to go to dinner, they're going to buy clothing - all those things that support the individuals who come. This is all really, really important to us, because it's the real estate tax base that generates almost two-thirds of the total general fund in the Fairfax County budget."
At just over 1 million residents, Fairfax County has nearly doubled its population in the last 30 years. “We’re looking at, in less than 15 years, another quarter-million people [living in Fairfax County],” Gordon said. “In Virginia, you cannot stop that… the question becomes, how do you pay for your children’s education? How do you pay for the police and fire protection, the parks, libraries, human services… unless you want to have your individual real estate tax rates go up, which is what’s happening in both Loudon and Prince William Counties? It’s because we have that business community to offset those costs. That’s the big picture. The details are that you end up in traffic congestion, but we have jobs.”
Not Much Available Land for Development
Land for development in the southern portion of the County is scarce. “Up until this point from the beginning of time in Fairfax County, that part of the county was a net draw on the budget," Gordon said. "Now they have the opportunity to become a net contributor to the budget. When a citizen pays a tax dollar they take back far more in public services, primarily because of the schools, than they contribute, and the businesses reverse that.”
BRAC will bring 21,600 Department of Defense employees from various agencies. About 2,300 employees will be shifted from Belvoir, leaving the net gain at 19,300. "Additional tax revenue means an extraordinarily high quality of life," said Gordon. “It means not only a consistent economy, but it also means the best public schools in America. Amongst all the cities and counties in the United States with a population of 100,000 or more, we are first or second every year now for public safety, one of the safest communities of our size in America. We have the highest per capita usage in the library system. You can’t be anywhere in Fairfax County and stand more than four miles from a park.”
Southeastern Fairfax County has 2,250 vacant commercial acres. There will be 10 million square feet of spinoff office space due to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency at the proving ground in Springfield, according to a November 2010 FCEDA presentation. “We also looked at the available office space in the [Route 1] corridor," Gordon said. "The entire corridor has less than 150,000 square feet vacant. So, it's not anywhere near a sufficient amount of space to accommodate what's coming in."
What will Southern Fairfax County look like ten years down the road?
The Route 1 Corridor and Lorton area have seen a boost in commercial and residential development because of BRAC. "Our estimates from our real estate staff is that in the next 10 years we’ll see eight to 10 million square feet of private commercial office space contributing to the tax base just because of this BRAC, not to mention other iterations of BRAC or other activities going on in that area," Gordon said.
That means changes for central Springfield. "Springfield Metro Center becomes enormously important again," he said. "The one thing that may be an offset to some of the traffic congestion is that if you live south and presently go into Arlington or DC to work, if we can create an employment center in Springfield, you have the congestion up to Springfield, but you may abate some of that congestion between Springfield and DC."
Alexandria's Mark Center off I-395 and Seminary Road will receive 6,400 employees at Washington Headquarters Services. The complex is three miles from the nearest metro station, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' choice of the location has been questioned.
"We thought the better location would have been in Springfield where the current GSA [General Services Administration] Warehouse site is located," said Gordon. "It didn't work for a variety of reasons, most of which had to do with timing and the expense of removing, primarily, the asbestos in the ground. That would have been an ideal site in our judgement plus it would have been nice to have that warehouse site removed. It's such prime property."
The 6,400 jobs are a six percent increase in Alexandria's employment base. According to an Alexandria cost-benefit analysis of the Mark Center project, "Assuming an estimated range of $75,000 to $100,000 salary per employee per year, the total [WHS] payroll would be between $480 million and $640 million per year overall. Because of the spillover effect, the benefits of this income addition will be spread over the Washington, D.C. region as the BRAC-133 employees largely live outside the City, and therefore will likely to spend most of their disposable income outside of the City.
"There will be increased spending on restaurants and retail by these employees, but that amount of increased spending is not likely to be substantial as government employees tend to spend less disposable income at lunch time near their place of employment than do non-governmental employees. The substantial security features of the [WHS] site, an on-site cafeteria and bank, and the fact that a minimum of 40% of [WHS] employees will not have cars at the site will also tend to negatively influence off site spending during the work day. It is likely that off-site spending will be the greatest in the late afternoons and evenings after ... employees leave work. There also will be… some number of new jobs created from DoD's and its employees' spending," according to the analysis.
But with more jobs comes more traffic. "It’s almost to the point where you have congestion nonstop," said Gordon. "I think what typically happens when they move in a bunch of people at one time, they look for alternative working hours, so they may start early, and these are feds and defense workers, so you might find a lot of them starting at very early in the morning and leaving at 3 [p.m.] to avoid that, but all that may mean is that… in the best of times, you’ve made it more difficult."
Demand for office space is outpacing supply, and widening Route 1 could prove problematic: "The highway is as broad as it can get. The properties on either side of most of that stretch of highway are right there. Not only are the parcels right on the highway, they’re also very small and narrow, because they go back 100 years. So, you would have to take numerous parcels all the way up and down the corridor, on at least one side, maybe both. The costs of doing that, and the political costs of doing that, would be just exorbitant.
"We have enough space countywide. What we don’t have is enough space in immediate proximity to Fort Belvoir. It means we need to build new," Gordon said. "I don’t believe the county is going to exercise the right of eminent domain and take property, I believe the developers and the companies will go in and assemble enough parcels to get a sizeable footprint for their buildings, which gets compounded through the setback requirements of 85 feet, so now you have to take more and more parcels. So that’s the only way this is going to happen."
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