This burg has grown
Fredericksburg region retains small-town feel amid population boom
Three-term incumbent Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw recalls when her city moved at a slower pace, as did surrounding Spotsylvania and Stafford counties.
All that has changed, profoundly.
Fredericksburg’s population has jumped by more than 50% during the past 20 years, from 19,279 in 2000 to an estimated 29,036 in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Spotsylvania’s population has increased at a similar pace, rising from 90,395 in 2000 to an estimated 137,110 today. Meanwhile, Stafford ‘s population has skyrocketed by nearly 70% over the last 20 years, shooting up from 92,446 to an estimated 156,300.
Altogether, the past two decades have been a period of growth and transition for the Fredericksburg region.
Greenlaw, who grew up in the city, has been part of that change.
For 27 years, she and her husband ran a cattle farm and butcher shop in Stafford County before Greenlaw turned to a timelier career in real estate. She retired in 2015 after working 15 years as a commercial real estate broker for Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer.
Fredericksburg’s real estate market is sizzling, Greenlaw says. “Everything is selling as soon as it’s put on the market.”
Over the past several years, the private sector has funneled $250 million into the city, the mayor adds, and an additional $250 million of economic development investment is in the pipeline.
Ties to Washington
A historic community, the Fredericksburg region is home to four major Civil War battlefields, including Chancellorsville and The Battle of the Wilderness site, and tourism is an important part of its economy.
For most of his childhood, George Washington lived in Stafford at Ferry Farm, where today visitors can see a replica of his boyhood home. His mother, Mary Ball Washington, spent much of her life in Fredericksburg, and Preservation Virginia maintains her final home on Charles Street as a period museum. Washington often visited his mother in Fredericksburg, as did luminaries such as John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette.
With its 4,400 students, the University of Mary Washington is named for her and infuses the city with a youthful vibe.
The nation’s capital, named for Mary Ball Washington’s son, is only about 50 miles away. And locals say Fredericksburg has always benefited from that proximity.
It’s well within commuting distance by car or train. Amtrak and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) provide daily commuter rail service from Fredericksburg to Northern Virginia and downtown Washington, D.C.
Jud Honaker is president of the commercial development division of Silver Cos., a Florida-based real estate investment and development firm with a regional office in Fredericksburg. A lifelong Fredericksburg resident, he’s had a ringside seat to the city’s growth and transformation, which he says has been driven by its status as a D.C. bedroom community.
“The number of people who moved to Fredericksburg to get affordable housing over the last 40 years has been tremendous,” Honaker says. “Basically, what people have been doing is moving further south to get the house they wanted for the price they could afford. Houses in Fairfax and Prince William (counties) kept going through the roof.”
Silver Cos. has been a principal developer in the Fredericksburg region for decades. “We’ve been a tremendous tax revenue generator for the three jurisdictions,” he says, pointing to one of the big turning points in the area’s economy.
“The city of Fredericksburg in the ’90s was financially strapped. They were considering reverting to a town and they had annexed this property called Central Park and they asked us to develop it.”
Development of Central Park began in 1995, and over the next 10 years, Silver Cos. built it into a huge shopping venue near the intersection of Interstate 95 and state Route 3. In its heyday, Central Park was ranked as the largest unenclosed mall (and second-largest mall) on the East Coast, and as the seventh-largest mall in the United States.
“At one time, it was generating over 20% of the city’s entire budget,” Honaker says. “If you take all of the projects the Silver Cos. have developed here in Fredericksburg, those developments are probably generating 30% of the city’s annual budget.”
Silver Cos. has since sold part of Central Park to a shopping center management company, but the firm is still actively developing properties in the community.
Carl Silver, the company’s founder, made his home in Fredericksburg, and the city is dotted with housing projects, shopping venues and scores of other properties that the company either owns or has developed.
One of the company’s latest projects is Celebrate Virginia South, a 540-acre, mixed-use development just north of Central Park. It’s anchored by a Wegmans grocery store, three hotels and the Fredericksburg Expo Center, which attracts more than 250 events.
It also contains the 5,000-seat baseball stadium that is the new home of the Fredericksburg Nationals — FredNats, for short.
The FredNats are a Minor League Baseball team in the Carolina League and a Class A-Advanced affiliate of the Washington Nationals, which last year won the World Series.
Seth Silber, the team’s treasurer and the son of the team’s chairman/CEO, Art Silber, says his father and other investors bought the team in 1990, but eventually the Silber family took full ownership. His sister, Lani Weiss, is team president and lives in Fredericksburg.
The Silber family had been trying to build a new stadium in Prince William County, where the team had been located since 1984, for more than a decade but the effort was unsuccessful. Fredericksburg officials reached out to the family two and a half years ago and invited them down for a visit.
Silber says they were “blown away” by the strong sense of community expressed during the visit, the strong interest in baseball and the immediate support from the business community.
“Minor League Baseball kind of thrives in smaller communities that have their own identity and Fredericksburg has its own identity. It’s in a fairly populous and economically strong area between Washington and Richmond,” says Silber, who also works as an attorney in Washington. “It’s kind of the perfect match for Minor League Baseball and that’s kind of what we hoped would happen when we came in and reached an agreement with the city on how to proceed and we got financing in place.”
Under a special financing arrangement, the stadium’s cost is being privately funded and Fredericksburg pays $1.05 million a year for 30 years to help service the debt on the stadium.
The city expects to recoup the money through tax revenue and other revenue-sharing opportunities with the owners of the FredNats.
“We think this might be a model for cities and counties wanting to do this in the future,” Silber says.
The pandemic washed out this baseball season for the FredNats, but Silber says the team is looking forward to a 140-game schedule beginning in April 2021, with 70 home games scheduled.
The team’s owners also are hoping to stage 10 to 15 concerts each year, and the city government also will be scheduling events at the new ballpark.
Relax, it’s Fred Ex
The FredNats are just one example of businesses that have recently moved into the area.
Bill Freehling, Fredericksburg’s economic development director, says that while a lot of workers live in Fredericksburg and commute to work elsewhere, more companies are locating in the city and creating jobs. Some of those companies are servicing the region’s growing population, while others, such as defense contractors, are relocating from Washington and from Northern Virginia in search of talent and lower business costs.
In February, the Virginia Economic Development Corp. released a study showing that the Fredericksburg region was adding jobs at a faster pace than anywhere else in Virginia.
One company that’s been particularly active is IST Research Corp., an engineering and technology firm that in January was awarded a $99.7 million contract to support the U.S. Department of State. In July, it received a five-year, $66 million contract from the General Services Administration (GSA).
Fredericksburg also is a center for health care in the region, with Mary Washington Healthcare employing more than 4,000 workers across a not-for-profit regional system with two hospitals and three emergency departments.
The city is also a bustling center of commerce for the region, with Central Park and other surrounding destination venues for shopping and dining. Spotsylvania Towne Center, directly across from Central Park, offers more than 150 specialty stores and restaurants.
Freehling also points out that the former downtown headquarters of the Free Lance-Star newspaper is undergoing a $90 million redevelopment into offices, restaurants, apartments and a hotel. The project is being handled by companies affiliated with local developers Tom and Cathy Wack and Vakos Cos.
While Fredericksburg has prospered through its proximity to Northern Virginia, that bond will likely grow stronger in the years to come, thanks to about $1 billion in public and private transportation projects in the Fredericksburg region that will unfold over the next several years.
But one of the most anticipated projects in the area will take on one of its greatest struggles — high traffic volumes.
The I-95 commuter corridor between Washington, D.C., and U.S. 17 in Stafford was dubbed the “worst single traffic hotspot” in the country a few years ago by INRIX Roadway Analytics, a global transportation data company.
“It was nothing new to us,” says Fredericksburg District Engineer Marcie Parker. “We already knew that.”
Expected to open in 2022, the Fredericksburg Extension (Fred Ex) will offer traffic relief via a $565 million, 10-mile extension of area Interstate 95 express lanes south to Exit 133. The lengthened lanes will connect with the I-395 Express Lanes to create a connected corridor spanning nearly 50 miles from Fredericksburg to the D.C. line.
Transurban, an Australia-based toll-road operation company with its U.S. headquarters in Alexandria, is funding the construction through a public private partnership with state government. Transurban will operate and maintain the express lanes and charge variable toll rates for using the lane in a contract that extends until 2087.
Developers say the extension will provide 66% more capacity on Interstate 95 during peak periods and move 30% more people and 23% more vehicles compared with existing conditions.
Other major area highway projects include two new bridges, each costing an estimated $132 million: the I-95 Northbound and Southbound Rappahannock River Crossings. The two new bridges will be built between existing I-95 bridges over the Rappahannock, providing for improved traffic movement through the region. The northbound crossing is being funded through a $277 million payment from Transurban to the state government to advance transportation projects along the I-95 corridor.
Parker says the new express lanes, bridges and other transportation work in the Fredericksburg region represent the largest body of highway improvements since I-95 was built and later widened.
“I feel these projects are going to be transformational for the area. It’s going to help the traffic move better than it has in the last 20 to 30 years,” Parker says.
The projects almost surely will bring new growth to the Fredericksburg region: more people, more jobs, more tourists, more change.
“It’s become so urban,” Greenlaw says, “but it pleases me that, despite the fact the city is twice the size it was when I finished high school, it’s still managed to maintain its character. I walk down the street and open my eyes and close my eyes, and it looks like my hometown. It feels like my hometown.”