Military projects aid construction industry in rapidly growing Prince William
- January 1, 2009
by Robert Burke
Fred Wilson built a custom-home construction business in Northern Virginia. It was a good business for him, at least until a couple of years ago, when the
demand for such homes sank out of sight in the region.
That’s when Wilson’s small construction firm, Lighthouse Homes USA, turned to remodeling work, which helped him keep going — for a while. But now that one of
his prime markets — Prince William County — leads the state in the number of foreclosures, it’s become a dismal place to find customers, even for remodeling.
So Wilson’s started working on a new customer: the federal government, and all because of BRAC, the Base Realignment and Closure process, begun in 1988 to
make military spending more efficient.
It has helped Prince William. Its eastern end is near two bases — the Army’s Fort Belvoir and Marine Corps Base Quantico — that stand to gain 19,300 jobs
Preceding those jobs is a wave of construction, and like hundreds of other small contractors, Wilson hopes to get a share of it. That’s why he spent a gray
Thursday in late November at an all-day seminar, hosted by the Quantico/Belvoir Regional Business Alliance, to mingle with big general contractors who might
hire him for BRAC-related work. “I’m trying to get on their list,” he says. “We’re definitely trying to stay busy.”
‘An opportunity you can’t pass up’
BRAC-related work comes at a good time for Prince William. Unemployment here has been creeping upward: in August Prince William’s unemployment rate hit 3.9
percent — not a terrible figure, but its highest level since February 1993, according to figures from the Virginia Employment Commission. (By October, the
jobless rate had fallen to 3.5 percent.) Plus, construction is a huge job sector, employing about 12,000 people in this fast-growing and increasingly diverse
county, which has seen its population rise more than 38 percent since 2000 to more than 389,000 people. “Especially given the economic times, this is an
opportunity that you can’t pass up,” says Miles Friedman, executive director of the Quantico/Belvoir alliance and a former chairman of the county’s Economic
Here’s some of what’s coming with the BRAC changes:
Construction is under way at Fort Belvoir on the 2.41 million-square-foot National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency facility, a $1.8 billion project that will
bring 8,500 military personnel now scattered around the region to one location. The Department of Defense support agency develops imagery and map-based
intelligence for the military. The project broke ground in September 2007 and should be done by May 2011.
A second major project is the new Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, which broke ground in June. When the $807 million hospital is completed in late 2010, it
will replace Belvoir’s existing DeWitt Community Hospital. It’s going to bring about 2,070 more workers to Belvoir, largely because it will take on the
primary and secondary care that’s now provided by Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
A third project — the 99,000-square-foot Missile Defense Agency headquarters, part of the U.S. Department of Defense — will start construction at Fort
Belvoir in February and be ready in August 2010 and bring in about 300 jobs. The agency leads the country’s development of ballistic missile systems.
While the BRAC-related construction work at Fort Belvoir is significant, the job shifts may not be, says Don Carr, Fort Belvoir’s director of public affairs.
That’s because nearly all of the employees being moved to Fort Belvoir already work at other sites in the region. It’s not clear whether those employees will
want to move closer, or whether the vendors that support these military operations will want to open satellite offices nearby as well, Carr says. Even so,
the BRAC projects promise several years of work for many contractors. The Quantico/Belvoir alliance was formed a year ago for just that reason, Friedman
says. “The time is just right for all the small and medium contractors to be looking for opportunities,” he says.
College part of alliance
The alliance was launched in cooperation with the region’s community college network, which is looking for ways to link local residents with the jobs that
BRAC projects might create. “One of the reasons we got interested in it is we saw an opportunity for the work force in Prince William,” says Sam Hill,
provost at the Northern Virginia Community College’s Woodbridge campus. “As a community college, we see ourselves in the work-force development business. If
there is a need, the college can be involved in providing the training.”
Hill acknowledges, though, that college leaders are still figuring out what training to provide. The school’s Woodbridge campus, which has about 8,500
students, may create a facilities maintenance program in hopes that all these new buildings will need to hire people to keep them running. NOVA’s newest
campus, in Fairfax County, is focused on medical education, and it has hopes of sending its graduates to the new hospital.
The bigger goal is to give workers in Prince William the tools to earn wages that will cover the cost of living there, Hill says. Hospitality and retail jobs
are the biggest employment sector in the county, but they don’t “command a high enough level of income to be able to support yourself at the cost of living
in Prince William County,” he says. “Our role is to offer a level of training to people who are under-employed so they can move into the career opportunities
Changing its image
The kind of jobs and economy that Prince William has brings up a sore point for many. The county has kind of a chip on its shoulder concerning its
reputation, which falls somewhere below the status of Fairfax, Arlington or Loudoun counties. Prince William is still seen by some as a poor cousin, in its
commercial profile and the cultural offerings. Laurie Weider, president of the Prince William Regional Chamber of Commerce, still winces when she recalls a
front-page story in The Washington Post from a few of years ago that described the county as a “déclassé rural relative of Fairfax and Loudoun counties.”
Only in Northern Virginia, perhaps, could a county with one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation ($80,783, 18th in the U.S., according to a Forbes
magazine ranking) be considered wanting, but still, Prince William hasn’t gotten over its sense of being a step below its wealthier Northern Virginia
neighbors. (Fairfax and Loudoun counties are first and second on the Forbes ranking, averaging close to $100,000 in per capita income.) Adding to the
county’s image problem has been the rancorous debate over illegal immigration. Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, has pushed to
use county resources to crack down on illegal immigrants, an effort that Weider admits hasn’t helped the county’s image. “It certainly has put us in the
spotlight and perhaps not always favorably,” she says. “But I’m not hearing so much about that right now. What I’m hearing is that economic times are very
challenging. We’re just like everybody else.”
Earlier this year the chamber formed a task force to figure out how to show off its best assets, Weider says. They include some new attractions, such as the
$60 million Hylton Community Performing Arts Center at George Mason University’s Prince William campus. The facility will open in 2010 and give the county
something it has sought for a long time: a venue for major cultural events, the kind of entertainment that county residents had to leave Prince William to
What’s more, Weider says, the county has spent nearly half a billion dollars in the past 20 years on transportation upgrades, and despite its proximity to
wealthier neighbors in the Washington region, it’s got plenty of assets to attract commercial investment.
“We’re going up the charm meter again,” Weider says. “Given the fact that there are challenges in the economy right now, I think what we can turn to is the
investments we’ve made, the investments we need to make and the assets that we have. So that when people are making those decisions again, we’ll be ready.”