Big city lights for Fairfax?

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Print this page Robert C. Powell

The Fairfax-Washington metropolitan area. The Greater Fairfax Region. Fairfax and its Northern Virginia suburbs.

How do those names sound?  They might come into use if Fairfax County becomes a city.

The Board of Supervisors in Fairfax County is considering the merits of seeking city status. The main reason for the change appears to be road money. The county gets back fewer than two dimes in transportation money for every dollar it sends to the state. As a city, Fairfax would get a better deal from the Virginia Department of Transportation and have more taxing authority to raise revenue.

But the change also would affect perceptions of Fairfax and Northern Virginia.

Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, notes that “county” suggests a rural area. Fairfax, in fact, is an urban area with more than a million residents, (70 percent more than Washington, D.C.). Fairfax has been highly successful in recruiting new businesses, such as Hilton Hotels Corp. and Volkswagen of America, but Bulova says that the county name still poses a hurdle.

Fairfax certainly would not be the first county in Virginia to become a city. Several expansive Hampton Roads cities, including Virginia Beach, Suffolk and Chesapeake, are the result of city-county mergers.

Yet Fairfax would become the state’s largest city, more than twice the size of Virginia Beach (population 433,746).  As a city, Fairfax also would become the center of Northern Virginia. The arc of Virginia counties stretching from Loudoun to Stafford is generally described as Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs. But a big percentage of commuters are headed to Fairfax, not Washington.

In fact, city status for Fairfax might recognize the true balance of economic power between the county and the capital. Washington may generate billions of dollars in federal contracts, but Fairfax overshadows the capital as a business location and generator of jobs.

Rightly or wrongly, cities, not counties, define their regions, even if the “suburbs” are far more populous. Richmond is far smaller than its neighboring counties. Nonetheless, the area will never be known as the Chesterfield-Henrico region, even if more people knew how to pronounce “Henrico.”

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