2006: Fairfax County, VA
OPPORTUNITIES: Why Fairfax County? For years, Fairfax has topped the list of national and international rankings as one of the best places to live work and play in the nation. They enjoy a school system that has the highest graduation rate in the nation. Their economic development agency has offices in five countries, more than many states. The per capita income in Fairfax County is $58,266—one of the highest in the U.S. In comparison, Gwinnett’s average is $30,570. Ninety-two percent of residents age 25 and older are high school graduates compared with the national average of 82.6 percent. And 56.3 percent of residents age 25 and older are college graduates. Gwinnett’s average is 34.1 percent and the national average is 26.5 percent. With incredible growth over the past three decades that turned Fairfax from a D.C. bedroom community to an economic powerhouse (sound familiar?) there were many lessons to be learned as to how Fairfax became the place it is today.
CHALLENGES: While a modern day success story, there are also some significant challenges facing Fairfax. The average home price in Fairfax is more than $420,000, compared with Gwinnett’s average of $170,000. Most teachers, public safety, and healthcare workers have to live outside the county making it increasingly difficult to attract a quality workforce while also adding to commute times and congestion. And speaking of congestion, Fairfax struggles from some of the worst congestion in the country – just behind Los Angeles. Two-hour, one-way commute times are the norm and accepted by many and the County may even be facing “Rail Gridlock” in the near future as residents pack the Virginia Railway Express rather than face the uncertainty of roads in and out of Washington, DC. Causing much of these problems is an antiquated “Dillon Rule” that forces the county to depend on the state for new road construction and planning as well as any type of new local funding for local problems. The result? Fairfax has limited control over its own destiny, a problem mentioned time and again from speakers from every field and background.
LESSONS: After hearing from more than 20 Fairfax and national experts and leaders in the areas of transportation, urban planning, education, county government, healthcare, economic development and arts and tourism, there were a number of best practices and lessons learned that were heard across the board. If Gwinnett can learn from these, we can avoid costly mistakes and sharpen the focus of the direction of our community for many years to come. While every delegate took his or her own lessons back with them to consider implementing new ideas or thoughts within their own organizations, there were a number of big-picture takeaways the group shared with each other at the end of the trip. The top lessons learned from each area were:
TRANSPORTATION: Gwinnett is very fortunate to have more control over local road projects. Fairfax has to rely on the state for construction and maintenance of roads and this loss of control has led to the congestion crisis. SPLOST is critical for our future success, not just for roads but for education as well.
Multi-modal transportation is a must. Neither roads alone nor transit alone are going to ease congestion. While we are 15 years away from lack of land, longer and longer commute times may make heavy rail something we may want to look at now. Fairfax’s Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is so popular they may be looking at future rail gridlock. The riders are mostly affluent executives who are attracted to VRE because of reliability of mobility times.
We must make wise land use decisions, especially around potential future rail corridors and stations with high density close to rail stations. These developments will become more and more attractive places to live because of convenience in and out of urban centers and could take the equivalent of one lane of cars off major arteries as it did in Fairfax. Fairfax’s total transit ridership now has the equivalent capacity of 12 to 15 peak freeway lanes.
DENSIFICATION OF THE SUBURBS (RESTON TOWN CENTER): People like a sense of place and that is what these types of higher density live, work, and play communities provide. Despite perceptions, more job growth and creative research is taking place in the suburbs rather than urban centers and will continue to do so. This creative class, young knowledge workers, and empty nesters are attracted to this type of community. The idea of a metropolitan area with one urban center is not true anymore. Reston Town Center is the story of people looking for a new downtown closer to home – a great opportunity for Southern Gwinnett and our Community Improvement Districts.
When there is no more land left, we have to build up. This is the history of all cities and communities. The densification will also support multi-modal transportation. Let’s take advantage of this and develop community centers with high-quality restaurants, entertainment destinations, public spaces and parks, and community activities.
Densification is an important part of revitalization of southern sections of the county and because of the existing infrastructure it will be more acceptable to residents and the community-at-large.
EDUCATION: The Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology is something to be emulated. Are there lessons that can be learned for our similar charter school scheduled to open next year? Stressing science, math and technology education to our public school children will help create the highly-skilled workforce we’ll need to keep high-paying jobs here in Gwinnett long-term.
Fairfax Public Schools have been very successful using incentives like signing bonuses, discounts on apartment rent and no interest loans for housing to attract some of their brightest teachers in a very competitive environment.
Fairfax Public Schools struggle with finding affordable housing for their teachers. This is a definite advantage for Gwinnett, but something we will need to be careful about in the future. The lack of affordable housing is really taking its toll in Fairfax on everything from the quality of workforce to traffic congestion.
COUNTY/DIVERSITY/HEALTHCARE: Diversity is seen as an opportunity, asset and competitive advantage in Fairfax. They made a decision long ago to embrace it and make it work. Today, with nearly 40 percent of its population consisting of fast growing minority communities, they continue to lead the nation in educational attainment levels, per capita income, low crimes rates and more. This can be traced back to their leadership’s attitude (and actions) from the beginning. Again, lack of affordable housing is one of their biggest challenges. They struggle to find qualified workers for education, public safety, healthcare and more.
Fairfax has a much more adequate number of hospital beds and physicians than Gwinnett. As a community, Gwinnett needs work to grow the health care system, recruit more physicians and make sure we have a strong quality of life to attract and keep them.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: They have a very structured, well-funded, aggressive and targeted economic development program that is something we should emulate. Partnership Gwinnett is the initiative to take us there. Their target sectors are Aerospace, Security, Software, Telecommunications, Systems Integration, and Internet Applications. Based on Partnership Gwinnett’s findings, Gwinnett is successfully positioned to target Health Care, Distribution and Trade, Headquarters, Regional Offices and Professional Services, Information Technology and Advanced Communications. The entire community benefits from an enhanced economic development program that attracts high-paying jobs and highly skilled workers. They have a strong retention program for existing industry that is proactive and helps keep those companies from relocating. We need to have more emphasis on retention of current businesses. Again, Partnership Gwinnett is designed to move us in this direction.
ARTS & TOURISM: Arts are a key component to a high quality of life and a tremendous economic development tool. As a maturing county, the timing may be right for Gwinnett to make a strong push here. Fairfax did a very good job coordinating and cooperating with the public schools. For example, they have a facilities coordination staff person at each school to assist scheduling community art groups’ use of the schools when not used by the system.
The CVB had a very innovative advertising program. Should we explore new ways to brand Gwinnett as a tourist destination? The entire community benefits when we bolster our support for tourism.
Towards the end of the visit, former Fairfax Mayor and leading arts advocate John Mason challenged the group with the question, “What can we do together that we couldn’t do alone.” That’s the purpose of the Strategic Leadership Visit, Partnership Gwinnett, and most of the Gwinnett Chamber’s initiatives – to achieve greatness together as a community. And that’s a greatness that cannot be achieved by our own individual efforts.