Front Royal has grand plans for cleaned-up Superfund site

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by Heather B. Hayes

A Superfund site isn’t usually considered prime property for economic development. Nevertheless, Front Royal is pinning a part of its future on a 440-acre former industrial site that, after nearly 20 years, is close to being free of environmental toxins.

“It used to be that Superfund sites were cleaned up to a certain level and then a fence would be put around them and they would never come back into use,” says Paul Carroll, executive director of the Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA). “We were one of the first nationwide to say that redevelopment should be part of the plan for remediation.”

The Royal Phoenix, as Warren County EDA officials have dubbed the Superfund renewal plan, is one of eight initiatives designed to revitalize Front Royal’s downtown and the surrounding area. “Front Royal is really the first community outside of the D.C. blast zone, and about 50 percent of the residents here are currently commuting to work in the D.C. area,” says John “Matty” Mathieson, executive director for the Center for Science, Technology and Economic Development for SRI International. The company is helping the EDA design and implement its economic planning roadmap.

“The whole goal here is really to become a part of the Northern Virginia economy and provide high-quality jobs for the local population but to do it in such a way that the community doesn’t lose its unique cultural and historical identity and its high quality of life.”

The Superfund initiative is the community’s primary focus at the moment, with the objective being to transform 160 acres of the former Avtex Fibers plant into a commercial, hospitality and entertainment complex. Officials expect to attract a hotel and conference center, a wine and culinary institute and retail shops, as well as back-office operations of government agencies and supporting contractors.

Already, about 33 acres of the site — which sits along the Shenandoah River and offers views of the Blue Ridge Mountains — have been released by the Environmental Protection Agency for reuse. This summer several tenants moved on the site and into the Avtex Fibers factory, including the Warren County EDA and the Wayside Theater.
Carroll says he expects another 60 acres to be available for redevelopment by the end of the year. The EDA is talking with regional developers and various business groups in Northern Virginia to recruit agencies and contractors. “We know that the businesses will come,” he explains. “The question is whether they can be attracted now or in the near future, as opposed to waiting five or 10 years when the sprawl starts reaching out here.”

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