Newcomers Bolster Prince William County's Development Dreams — And Face Its Backlash
Prince William County, Virginia, has long been on the fringe of a region enjoying more than a decade of consistent growth. But as its neighbors become increasingly built out, the county is poaching talent to embark on a growth path of its own.
In one late October day, two new leaders were announced in the county: The Prince William Chamber of Commerce selected Bob Sweeney as its new president and CEO, and the Prince William Board of County Supervisors selected Chris Shorter as the new county executive.
Both new hires are coming from outside the county and replace leaders with decades of experience within Prince William County, and they will begin their new positions at a time when the county is reckoning with the political implications of development on a level not seen in years.
“The last few years has offered an opportunity in terms of attracting new businesses, especially in the life science area and technology fields,” Board of County Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler said in an emailed statement to Bisnow. “Both these individuals will bring strong management skills and incredible backgrounds to support business growth in our community and will only add to Prince William County’s current success.”
Shorter, who still serves as Baltimore’s city administrator, didn't respond to requests for comment. But when he begins his new role on Jan. 3, he will inherit a top position in the county just as it works to implement its Digital Gateway data center plan and update its comprehensive plan to encourage new development in Woodbridge and elsewhere.
The Digital Gateway, which could bring up to 2,100 acres of data center development near the Manassas battlefield, has been a lightning rod for opinions on the future of the county, with some calling the planned development a “disaster” for Virginia’s Rural Crescent.
But Sweeney, while acknowledging the difficult politics of the project, said its approval is an opportunity for the county to drive revenue and invest in better public services for its residents.
"The way I look at it, you can look at cow pastures for a long time and see no tax revenue," Sweeney said. "You can look at a couple of data centers and see millions of dollars annually in tax revenue."
Sweeney was most recently the director of corporate partnerships at American University's Kogod School of Business. He is sharing his new position with longtime chamber leader Debbie Jones starting Thursday and through the end of the year in order to take advantage of the institutional knowledge she has developed over her 32 years at the chamber.
“It's an opportunity, obviously, to accelerate what they were doing, which seemed like it was really good stuff — and a lot of stuff, by the way — and just add a different, Bob Sweeney flavor to it,” Sweeney said.
The task of building out data center capacity isn’t over, said Christina Winn, executive director of the Prince William County Department of Economic Development. She said there will continue to be community engagement now that the comprehensive plan amendment has been approved.
But she also noted the boost that increased capital in the county could provide, especially considering 57% of tax revenue goes directly toward education in the county. Winn said in Arlington County — where she previously worked in economic development and helped land Amazon HQ2 — the tax base is split roughly evenly between residential and commercial property owners. But in Prince William, roughly 15% of the tax base is commercial, including multifamily properties.
Investing in an educated workforce, which is a business magnet for corporate relocations in a tight labor market, would create a virtuous cycle supporting further development, Winn said.
“If this project continues to move forward through the land use and planning process and the public engagement, that increased capital investment helps to offset some of the burden that’s put on the residential, but it also creates opportunities for parks and libraries and schools,” Winn said.
She also said housing is increasingly becoming a priority for the county, especially denser development near highways and the county’s Virginia Railway Express stations.
Those efforts, too, have drawn some controversy. A homeowners association in North Woodbridge is locked in a court battle with developer Belmont Bay that is slowing down investment in a multifamily property near the Woodbridge VRE station.
Nevertheless, Winn said the county appears poised to support greater development, partnering with George Mason University and other business incubators on its Northern Virginia Bioscience Center to continue to attract investment from a wide range of industry sectors in the county.
"I think it’s clear the board’s direction and where they want to go in terms of creating more capital investment," Winn said.
Rick Nishanian, head of the Chamber of Commerce's board of directors, also sees the county as “on the verge” of becoming a regional actor, and said hiring Sweeney was meant to support the county’s rising stature.
Nishanian said the chamber wants to partner with major companies like Amazon and Micron on workforce development as the Digital Gateway and the region as a whole become magnets for the information technology sector.
“The Digital Gateway of course is sort of a hot potato, so to speak,” Nishanian said, noting the chamber doesn’t comment on land use decisions. “Without getting into the pros and cons of the politics ... it obviously is going to put Prince William County on the map. It's going to put a big giant red X on the map.”
Winn advised the incoming leaders to explore the county’s many businesses and communities, which include life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and distribution centers for the likes of Amazon, Wayfair and Giant.
She said that while other areas of the D.C. region saw development pause during the pandemic, the county’s targeted industries continued to invest in the cheap available land and strong workforce of Prince William County.
“We were so crazy busy because three of our targeted industries — life sciences, data centers and e-commerce — all created a significant amount of demand during the pandemic, and still have a lot of demand,” Winn said. “What can I say? The suburbs are in.”