by Michael Neibauer, Washington Business Journal

18 January 2012

Prince William County is a jurisdiction of 400,000-plus residents, the second largest county in Virginia, and yet it remains a sleepy suburb. People eat there. They shop there. They rest their weary heads there.

And then they wake up and go to work someplace else. Despite its exploding population, recently released data suggests Prince William is very much a bedroom community.

According to the county’s 2010 Citizen Satisfaction Survey, roughly 70 percent of Prince William County residents commute outside of the county to work — 23.1 percent in Fairfax County, 10.3 percent in D.C., 6.9 percent in Arlington, 6.4 percent in Alexandria.

Commercial and industrial property accounts for less than 15 percent of Prince William County’s real estate tax base, half that of Arlington and 8 percent less than Fairfax County.

And then there’s Prince William’s top 10 employers. Three are retailers, reports the 2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report: Wal-Mart, Target and Wegmans. One is Potomac Hospital. Another is Minnieville Private Day School. The remaining five are local or federal government-related.

In other words, except for government work, the top employers in Prince William are either places where people shop, drop off their kids for school, or go when they’re sick.

What does it all mean? It means that Prince William County is a place where people want to, or have to for the more affordable housing prices, live, but is not yet a place where big business sees a future. It means Prince William is more dependent on residential real property taxes to fuel its annual budget, and it suffers a swifter, harsher blow when the housing market turns sour.

Nevertheless, confidence is high among Prince William leaders. The county reports having a total of 45.1 million square feet of commercial space, including retail, as of the 3rd quarter of 2011, a .4 percent increase over the prior year. Vacancies were down as existing space was absorbed and developers slowed their construction. At-place employment was up 7.8 percent in 2011 over 2010.

“Expectations are that the commercial real estate market will continue to improve over the course of the next few years as the local economy grows,” County Executive Melissa Peacor and Director of Finance Steven Solomon noted in the annual financial report, released in December.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments projects Prince William to hit 555,000 residents by 2030. Perhaps by then the county will have shed its sleepy image, or at least welcomed some big time employers into the fold. I-95 and I-66 may never be wide enough to handle the traffic if it doesn’t.

Michael Neibauer covers economic development, chambers of commerce, transportation and politics.