How Fairfax County Will Become An Innovation Hub
No doubt the DC region’s tech economy is flourishing, evolving from a heavy federal IT focus to an ecosystem of small tech startups and entrepreneurs. But one jurisdiction is wondering, “Now what?”
Fairfax County, long established as the home of federal IT contractors, is kicking off a plan to establish “innovation hubs” around dense, Metro-accessible areas of commercial, residential and retail activity. The county wants to lure R&D labs, co-working spaces, accelerators and incubators to create an ecosystem of innovation in various concentrated areas, says Fairfax County Deputy County Executive Rob Stalzer. Ultimately it will help diversify and bring more jobs and companies to the county.
The idea would be to partner with local universities to expand their R&D facilities into these innovation hubs. The county is already working with George Mason, which conducts over $100M of research in the region. Virginia Tech is looking to expand its footprint in the region.
County officials are also looking at updating zoning regs to make the county more business friendly to newer technologies like 3D printing, says Regina Coyle, who works on special initiatives for the Department of Planning and Zoning in Fairfax County. “It’s not the type of industrial manufacturing that people typically think of as requiring distance from other uses due to negative impacts. We could co-locate some of these types of companies in an office environment,” she says.
The county is working off a Brookings study that shows innovation districts as the new geography of research in the US. In other areas of the country, innovation hubs have added jobs and attracted more startups and entrepreneurs, says Brookings. The county hasn’t identified specific places for these innovation hubs, but they would likely be located in mixed-use activity centers within the county's Comprehensive Plan, including clusters along the Silver Line like Tysons and Reston, as well as Merrifield and Seven Corners.
Since Fairfax doesn’t offer companies direct financial incentives, it’s counting on creating these hubs where people want to be as a way to lure the next wave of companies, says Rob.
To move the plan forward, the county is partnering with private real estate developers on projects like Innovation Center South in Herndon, which has the potential to become one of the county’s innovation hubs. The 12-acre project, being developed by Rocks Engineering Co, includes over 1,000 multifamily units and sits on the last stop of the Silver Line. Fairfax County is building a $65M, 2,100-space parking garage for bus and rail commuters.
Economic Initiatives Coordinator for Fairfax County Eta Davis also pointed to Inova’s plan to establish a hub of innovation and genomics research in Merrifield. The plan to bring renowned clinicians, researchers and business people to the campus is along the same lines as the innovation hubs Fairfax County wants to create.
In the big picture, Fairfax County is not using the strategy to compete with other metro areas for tech companies. It’s not even intended to compete with other DC-area jurisdictions. It’s simply to stay ahead of the broader economy, which regionally is veering away from reliance on federal government business. Having some regional cooperation for innovation from neighboring jurisdictions would help the plan, says Eta.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopted the Economic Success Strategic Plan in a 10-0 vote but isn’t allocating money specifically to create innovation districts or hubs. However, Rob foresees the board investing in the opportunity in the future. “An innovation district is a type of investment where we just scratch the surface of future economic success,” he adds.