When it comes to economic development, Prince William County has always been known for its retail destinations, such as Potomac Mills and large car dealerships, and data centers recently have become part of the mix.
But under the leadership of new economic development director Christina Winn, the county is now trying to attract more office space and other businesses.
Winn, who was hired in June from Arlington, where she helped land Amazon’s HQ2 offices, said she plans to have work sessions in 2020 with the new board of county supervisors to share her vision of how the department can help the county.
“At its core, it’s creating jobs and capital investment, which increases the tax base and funds government services,” she said.
The county has 48 million square feet of commercial space, according to estimates.
Retail is the largest category, with 21.9 million square feet, compared to 13.1 million square feet of industrial space, 7.5 million square feet of office space and 5.4 million square feet of flex space, which can accommodate a variety of office and manufacturing uses.
Retail has the lowest vacancy rate at 3.8%. Potomac Mills, with its proximity to I-95, is the largest outlet mall in Virginia with over 200 stores, according to the company’s website.
Data centers are a significant portion of the county’s industrial space, with 5.2 million square feet, said Allisha Abraham, research manager for the county’s economic development department.
The county has a long-term goal to increase its commercial base to 35% of the tax revenues, which would mean less dependence on resident taxes and fees to fund government services. Right now, the county’s commercial base represents 14%, Winn said.
With such a high percentage of residents commuting out of the county, high-paying jobs in the county would improve the quality of life for residents, Winn said.
“We’re at the cusp of our market changing again, so we want to inform folks of the opportunities here,” she said.
The department also has direction from the board of county supervisors about where long-term commercial and residential growth should be concentrated as identified in the county’s small-area plans, including North Woodbridge, Triangle, The Landing at Prince William and Dale City.
Winn said the small-area plans are steering the county toward attracting mixed-use developments, which aim to provide access to transit and provide a walkable communities.
“They’re meant to take traffic off the road and will create jobs for residents, alleviating traffic because people won’t have to travel as far [for work],” Winn said.
The region has a lot of old commercial space that is unlike the mixed-use developments that aim to help people enjoy their day, Winn said.
“The challenge is employers want a newer product and mixed-use,” she said. “We need to build more product and more of the right type of product. Mixed use, that’s where employees want to work, and a workforce is a company’s No. 1 asset. Business decisions are about getting a good workforce.”
One mixed-use development in the county is Potomac Shores, east of U.S. 1 and near the Potomac River.
The developer is planning to build a town center with 1.7 million square feet of office and retail commercial space, a hotel and a riverwalk.
With a vision to open at the end of 2021, the developers are designing a new VRE station, with plans for nearby stores, offices and restaurants, said David Soyka, senior vice president at SunCal, the developers at Potomac Shores.
“The VRE station is at the heart of the transit-oriented development concept for the town center and will help draw people from outside the community to support the retail uses,” Soyka said.
The developer is working with two commercial brokers to help find office and retail tenants, Soyka said, adding it is also collaborating with Winn.
The developer contributed a site for Covington-Harper Elementary School, which opened in 2017, and a site for a middle school, expected to open in September 2021. It is also negotiating a proposed sale to the county of a site for a school in the town center.
Soyka said retail is driven by people, and the community has hundreds of homes finished and more homes planned. The community also includes the Potomac Shores Golf Club.
“These things together should start to provide enough synergy to attract retailers,” Soyka said.
SMALL BUSINESS IS BIG BUSINESS
The county has predominantly small and mid-size companies, with 95% of businesses having 20 or fewer employees, according to the county’s budget for fiscal year 2020, which ends June 30.
Abraham said the county is working with the George Mason University’s small business development center, which offers free small business assistance for Prince William residents.
Located at 14000 Crown Court in Woodbridge, the center has space for the economic development department staff to work on small business and redevelopment programs. The economic development department’s recently-added position focused on the eastern end of the county, she said. The county also added three project managers in its development services department to focus on helping small businesses through the development process, she said.
Winn said the county has highly educated and skilled residents. They’re a part of why businesses could find success locating in the county.
Winn said when businesses are looking to relocate or find more space, it’s similar to what homebuyers are looking for in a new home. “It’s the same for businesses; they’re looking for different assets.”