By Ashley Claire Simpson | Photos by Kathy Strauss
September 2008 rocked America… twice. The first blow came when the global financial firm, Lehman Brothers, filed the largest bankruptcy claim that the world had ever seen. That same month the U.S. stock market took the biggest plunge in history—a plunge so steep that it wouldn’t be rivaled until 2018.
The Great Recession was in full swing, and even the illustrious, industrious Northern Virginia was brought to its knees. Things didn’t start looking up until June 2009, when this recession officially ended, according to the United States National Bureau of Economic Research.
Now, more than a decade after Americans woke up to news of that September stock market drop, do you ever wonder what historians will ultimately say about the Great Recession, and how the government reacted?
In this line of reflection, we must not overlook the role of local governments, and how they managed this tumultuous time. Prince William County’s approach, for one, was to position itself and its people for the future.
“Our thoughts were that we needed to use that time to redesign our county budget,” Corey Stewart, the current Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) Chairman, said. “We did a lot of review and got rid of a lot of unproductive programming. We built the revised budget around three components: transportation,
education, and public safety.”
Prince William County’s government is structured so that the eight elected Supervisors of the BOCS work as a unit to set policy. And as for the last decade, the supervisors (the Board members) affiliated with both political parties agree that this area has been on the right track.
Prince William: 10 Years Ago
Being in such close proximity to the Nation’s Capital, perhaps Prince William residents felt a somewhat false sense of security before the Recession smacked the country. It is, after all, natural to assume that government towns are “recession proof.” However, as the entire country lost millions of jobs between 2008 and 2010, Prince William County was not immune to the economic downturn.
“Federal employees and people working for federal contractors make up a huge percentage of our workforce,” said Stewart, who has been a member of the BOCS since 2003. “The sequestration that scaled back federal spending had an indirect, yet substantial, impact on Prince William County as a whole. When the government cuts jobs and people are unsure of whether or not they will have a job at some point, the housing market goes flat, and everything else follows suit.”
Woodbridge District Supervisor Frank Principi—who assumed his BOCS position during 2008’s economic downturn—recalls the atmosphere of the county at that time as being “depressing.”
“The Great Recession was terrible,” said Principi. “We ended up in a really bad place, both in our local and national economies. Prince William County had one of the worst housing markets in the country in terms of foreclosures. We had to do severe budget cuts, eliminating more than a hundred million dollars of spending and getting rid of a lot of great services.”
The bubble burst and so did any sense of certainty around government employment. So with the inevitable decline in retail sales and overall gross domestic product (GDP), Prince William County’s government focused on providing security for its residents in other crucial ways. “With the private sector in a recession, it was the perfect time for our government to focus on improving capital programs,” Stewart said. “When the housing market collapsed, the cost of materials dropped substantially—steel, concrete, everything necessary to build. It was a good time to be building roads and schools, so we doubled down on those programs. We fast-forwarded a lot of park facility building programs as well. For one, we were planning to build three new elementary schools in 2009, and instead we built four schools at the same cost.”
The government made moves to turn crisis into opportunity, but still had to make some tough decisions regarding budget cuts amid a growing population. The number of people in Prince William County increased by more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2010. Still, despite budget cuts in other areas, Prince William County continued to carry out the long-standing Revenue Sharing Agreement it has with the School Board. “We’ve had this agreement in place for about 20 years,” said Principi. “It makes sure that 57 percent of tax revenue gets transferred to the school board. Our role is to make sure they have adequate resources.”
The goals associated with local fiscal management throughout the Recession went beyond survival, and Prince William County benefitted in many ways from local government’s focus on the end game. By 2013, Stewart said the BOCS saw the fruits of their efforts. “Tax bills went way down so that our residents were paying about 30 percent less than the rest of the region,” Stewart said. “Then, economic growth just went through the roof. There was more job growth in Prince William County than anywhere in the state; it was the highest in the country. It’s continued since then, too.”
These days, the Board’s priorities are very much the same, and you can see it in the strategic planning. According to the Prince William County Office of Management and Budget’s official website, the 2017-2020 Strategic Plan sets out to establish the following: a robust economy, a higher quality education system,
better mobility, increased well-being, a safe and secure community, and a developed workforce. The local government made moves toward its ultimate vision in a number of ways in 2018. Below, both the Republican Stewart and the Democrat Principi weigh in on Prince William’s progress.
Today, Prince William County’s population stands at more than 470,000 people, a significant jump from its 2010 population of 402,002.
“The population has grown dramatically,” Stewart said. “We are increasing by seven to ten thousand residents per year, so by 2020, there will be half a million of us living here.”
With such growth, it is crucial to maintain a bustling economy to provide adequate resources so that existing and new residents alike can thrive. As a result, local government has focused on reliable, long-term sources of revenue. Enter: data centers.
“Very quickly, Prince William County has become a national site for data centers, specifically a secondary, failover site for those in Loudoun County,” Stewart said. “This is advantageous because data centers consume very few resources at the same time while producing a lot of tax revenue. Becoming the new prime location for data center development has been great for the county.”
2018 surpassed 2017’s three billion dollars in capital investments, and Stewart added that most of it came from said data centers, which Principi agrees have been Prince William’s “cash cow.”
Another noteworthy figure: 2018 unemployment shrunk to four percent. Still, while this is undoubtedly encouraging, Principi insists that the county has more work to do in terms of providing meaningful employment opportunities.
“Unemployment is the lowest on record in over a decade,” Principi said. “At four percent, it is pretty healthy. However, we aren’t creating enough high-paying jobs. That number doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality of the jobs produced here in our county. We have a well-educated labor force, and up to 71 percent of our working adult residents are leaving the county for jobs. These are a lot of blue-collar jobs that don’t produce enough income to afford housing in Woodbridge, for example.”
While Prince William is moving in the right direction, Principi said it is on BOCS members—including him—to find more creative sources of revenue.
As the Board narrows in on more out-of-the-box solutions, though, the county as a whole is on the right path with certain initiatives put in place for people to start and support local businesses.
“We just saw the opening of Sweeney Barn as a local event venue,” Principi noted. “It was an old, snake-infested barn on Route 234 that has been beautifully restored as a wedding and events venue. Hopefully there will be more opportunities like this to come.”
Reducing classroom sizes has long been on the Board’s agenda. In 2018, the BOCS established the Joint Capital Process Team—consisting of three BOCS members and three School Board members—to fuel collaboration and thus eliminate bulwarks to getting more space for students.
“It’s been very effective,” Stewart said. “We’re now in very tight coordination with the county and the school system. We’ve already worked with the school system to identify and purchase land on the Prince William Parkway for new schools.”
Principi said these challenges are perhaps the biggest pieces of evidence that Prince William County has not fully rebounded from the Great Recession that ended nearly 10 years ago. “We have 94,000 students in schools across the county, and thousands go to school in trailers,” Principi said. “We haven’t gotten back to our pre-recession status, and that’s a real problem. The problems have manifested themselves and we have a real overcrowding problem in our classrooms.”
Local government did make progress with this agenda item in 2018, though.
“The numbers are going down, but we still have a long way to go,” Stewart said, in agreement with Principi. “We’ve been cutting down classroom sizes systematically, focusing on grades and classes by need. The School Board recently did a presentation that concluded we’ve been successful, so, classroom sizes are definitely going down in Prince William County.”
There are also plans to continue efforts to create better learning environments for kids across the county.
In a recently configured subcommittee, “we put a number on the overcrowding problem—$143.2 million to eliminate use of portable trailers at 44 schools,” Principi said. “The execution timeline is unsure, but, it will happen. We are looking at a one-time appropriation just to catch up to where we should have been five to ten years ago.”
Transportation advancements throughout the county have been an undisputed success during the last 10 years, particularly in 2018.
“We’ve had some tremendous success,” Stewart said. “We just cut the ribbon of a major road project on Minnieville Road just yesterday [in December 2018]. This was the result of a bond referendum passed in 2006, and we will need to get another passed in 2019 for future projects.”
Many of the major roads that run through Prince William County look quite different than they did a mere decade ago. With the passage of a road bond referendum, for example, Interstate 95 has since been widened from the Occoquan Bridge to the Fairfax County Parkway.
Currently, the Prince William County Department of Transportation’s projects include Burwell Road/ Fitzwater Drive improvements, the widening of Fuller Drive outside Marine Corps Base Quantico and improvements to both Route 1 and Route 28.
“The Route 1 project has been massive and an example of one we’ve done in conjunction with the state,” Stewart said. “We have one ongoing, one completed, and one about to start. I’m proud of that, because these projects are not just improving the commute, but they are also improving the entire Route 1 corridor.”
Throughout the county, the thousands of residents who daily traverse these notoriously congested roads continue to reap the benefits of these changes.
“The residents of Woodbridge have been well served in terms of eastern Prince William roads,” Principi said. “I’m pleased with road improvements. Economic development started with the widening of Route 1, and all Route 1 changes should be completed by 2021.”
Safety and Security
At the end of the day, we all just want to feel safe in and around the homes we’ve worked hard to rent, buy, and otherwise maintain. And last year, the board exponentially increased the number of personnel whose jobs are to protect the community’s safety at all costs.
“In the last two years, there has been a sharp increase in public safety, and in 2018, we drastically increased the number of career firefighters and police officers,” Stewart said. “We’ve also worked on retention measures, too. One way we’ve done this is by increasing the wages of uniformed personnel.”
Chairman Stewart added that the county will continue along this path in 2019 and beyond to make Prince William County an even safer community.
Prince William County: The Place to Be for Years to Come
As the population continues to soar, the officials overseeing Prince William’s interests know they have a lot of work to do. “Population growth is the undercurrent for everything happening,” Principi said. “The future is going to be all about accommodating the growing community. We will work to get more jobs and more schools, and more. We have so much opportunity to do great things here.”
Principi, for one, is confident the county has what it takes to do these great things: “One thing the county has consistently done right since the Recession has been to hire, train, and retain a really smart workforce … so many people who have worked with all of us supervisors to get things done and make things work with limited resources. I’m proud of the people we have in place who understand the complexity and costs associated with building a community.”
In the meantime, Prince William County residents have a lot to love about the place they call home.
“It’s Northern Virginia, but it feels more like real America than other parts of the region,” Stewart said. “It’s a little slower paced and more affordable, the schools are great, and the quality of life is great. There’s more space, but still great access to the District. There’s also so much potential, and I believe we’re improving so much faster than anywhere else.”
Ashley Claire Simpson ([email protected]) is a corporate communications professional by day, but her real passion is learning more about this community and the world by writing.