Rob Gurwitt is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Local economic development efforts operate according to two broad assumptions. If you're going to have a separate development arm, the thinking goes, it should be a public-private partnership. And if it's going to compete successfully, it has to have a bundle of direct incentives--especially tax write-offs--to throw at businesses.
So the case of Fairfax County, Virginia, is worth a moment's notice. Three decades ago, Fairfax was best known for its subdivisions and retail malls. Now, it is a high-tech nexus, trailing only Silicon Valley and the Boston area in the venture capital its businesses receive. It has added thousands of jobs to its rolls every year for the past decade and a half, and has become, not coincidentally, the wealthiest county in the U.S. in terms of household income.
And it has done all this with an economic development authority that avoids public-private partnerships and doesn't offer corporate tax breaks to anybody. "In Fairfax County," says Gerald Gordon flatly, "we have never, ever given a tax incentive of any kind, for any purpose." It is a statement he is proud to make.
Gordon, who is 50, is the president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, as he has been for nearly 16 years. A soft-spoken, almost scholarly man--he did, in fact, spend eight years as an adjunct economics professor at the University of Maryland-- Gordon does not fit the image of the glad-handing local marketer.
"He's the very opposite of what you might expect," says county supervisor Gerald Connolly. "There's no hucksterism, no slick style. It's a quiet, persuasive, tenacious, thorough kind of approach that puts the emphasis on the fundamentals, as opposed to gimmicks and short-term tax breaks."
Of course, Gordon has a good deal to work with, not the least being Fairfax's location. As he points out, "we take up almost all the land between one of the fastest-growing airports in the world (Dulles International) on our western border, and the federal government on our eastern border. We offer opportunity; we don't have to give away the county." Indeed, Connolly says, the federal government's downsizing during the 1990s didn't hurt Fairfax, it helped. "Federal dollars for outsourcing and procurement ballooned," he says, and a lot of companies based themselves in Fairfax to take advantage of that largesse.
But Gordon has taken advantage of the county's strengths. His agency may be stingy on subsidies, but it spends heavily on its own operations: The yearly budget of almost $7 million is a good bit higher than its counterparts in other booming counties. In addition to a local staff of 33, Fairfax has offices in Frankfurt, Tokyo and London, and creates incubators to help foreign-owned businesses get their feet on the ground in this country. The EDA spends $2 million a year on advertising worldwide.
A few years back, Fairfax hosted a World Forum on Information Technology, which brought in close to 2,000 foreign high-tech business executives and, says former chamber of commerce president James Dyke, "made it clear that this was the place you wanted to be if you wanted to be a player in the technology arena." More recently, the EDA began a yearly "Emerging Business Forum" designed to help minority-owned businesses.
Gordon already has his eye on what he hopes will be the next big thing for the county: bio-informatics, or the use of information technology to undergird biological research. "Fairfax County's population is expected to grow by another 200,000 people over the next 18 years, to 1.2 million people," he says. "There are going to be new costs for public education, for human services, for police and fire protection. So unless revenue climbs all on its own, we have no choice but to get new businesses to come in."