Thirty years ago, despite the emergence of Tysons Corner as an edge city, Fairfax County was still very much a suburb of Washington, D.C.
But under the leadership of Fairfax County Economic Development Authority President and CEO Gerald Gordon, the county has been transformed over three-plus decades into a national economic powerhouse, a jurisdiction that stands on its own. It has competed for, and won, the corporate headquarters of giants like Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), SAIC, Hilton Worldwide and Volkswagen North America and is home to more Fortune 500 companies that any other local jurisdiction. It has quadrupled its office space. It has more than doubled its jobs.
Gordon announced his retirement Monday after 35 years with the EDA, 31 years as its chief, leaving behind an organization that observers say has set the standard for excellence in economic development and built Fairfax County’s reputation as global player when it comes to recruiting businesses overseas. He starts his next career, with the College of Charleston, in January.
Thanks to Gordon, Fairfax County is the “envy of the region,” said Stuart Mendelsohn, a former member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors who has worked closely with Gordon over the years.
“Jerry is probably one the most critical, transformation people Fairfax County has had in 35 years,” said Mendelsohn, now executive partner for Holland & Knight’s Tysons office. “Whether it be Republicans or Democrats on the Board of Supervisors, he kept us focused on economic development as critical to the future and success of Fairfax County. … He kept everyone’s eye on the ball that we need the commercial tax base and without it, we wouldn’t have the schools we have, we wouldn’t have many of the other social services that Fairfax County provides.”
Here’s how he did it.
1. He didn’t put cash on the table
Incentive packages worth many millions of dollars are standard operating procedure in the modern competition to land corporate offices and the jobs and follow them. Arlington offers them. Montgomery County and D.C. do too. But not Fairfax (though the state of Virginia has been known to throw cash at corporations). Gordon has long had the mentality that the county just didn’t need to participate in that game.
Chris Lloyd, a senior vice president with McGuireWoods in Richmond who worked on negotiations to recruit SAIC and Hilton to Fairfax County, said Gordon “had a philosophical objection to the use of incentives.” The approach instead, Lloyd said: Focus on quality of life, Virginia’s lower-tax environment, outstanding schools, good office product and proximity to D.C.
“I think Jerry’s perception was that those were incentives enough, that when you look at the corporate bottom line that those were really the things that motivated corporate decisionmakers,” Lloyd said. “I would say it was a contrarian view. Jerry had and, still to a degree has, a relatively differentiated product. The thing is other markets now have a similar product.”
Tom Stringer, site selection consultant for Northrop Grumman when it was seeking a new headquarters that ultimately ended up in Falls Church, said Fairfax County is one of only a handful of locations that have the ability to shun incentives, along with other high-demand areas such as New York City, Austin, Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
“I think they feel that a certain number of projects are going to come their way regardless so they don’t need to incentivize it, and what they’ll do is allow the state to pick up the tab,” said Stringer, who heads BDO’s national site selection and business incentives practice in New York.
But incentives could, perhaps should, be part of the equation in the future, Lloyd said. “I think the next EDA director should take a comprehensive look at all the ways Fairfax markets itself, including whether to use incentives or not,” he said.
2. He was blunt
Gordon was known for his blunt nature when it came to Fairfax County’s position as a leader in economic development — not easily swayed by political whims. That’s part of what made him a success as EDA president and part of what frustrated others, observers say.
The longer Gordon was in office, however, the more blunt and curt he became, McKay said. “I think part of that is his tenure, part of that is statistics supported,” he said.
Local economist Stephen Fuller, head of the Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University, said Jerry’s shortcoming was that he saw Fairfax County as being superior.
“I think he had a superiority complex and I don’t know that it did any harm to Fairfax County but he didn’t want to play in the regional sandbox,” he said.
Gordon was criticized heavily, for example, for comments he made in 2013suggesting Prince George’s would be an appropriate home for the FBI because that’s where the agency would find the people to pick up (he walked it back soon after). A couple of years later, when Fuller and a coalition of economic development organizations such as the 2030 Group banded together to chart a roadmap to building a stronger regional economy, Gordon declined to take part in the effort.
“He just never bought into it and I think it was because it was a regional effort and had a broader mandate” than what Gordon felt was his mission as head of the Fairfax County EDA, Fuller said. “He was the kind of guy you’d like to have on your team.”
3. He introduced Fairfax to the world
Under Gordon’s tenure, the Fairfax EDA grew its international reputation, with the opening of offices in Berlin, London, Bangalore, Seoul and Tel Aviv, to assist companies that want to set up business operations in the county or expand.
“Fairfax County’s marketing infrastructure is far more elaborate than most states,” he said. “Many states maintain international offices, international personnel, but we are talking about a county.”
The overseas offices have helped Fairfax County market itself all over the world and capitalize on the “international appeal of the Washington metropolitan area,” said Basu, CEO of the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group. “Fairfax has had a level of name recognition that has only been rivaled by Washington, D.C itself. So when people think about locating to the Washington metropolitan area in a suburban context, Fairfax County has been top of mind.”
4. He knew what he was selling
Fairfax County’s success, and Gordon’s, can also be attributed to the county’s proximity to D.C., the Pentagon, and two international airports nearby.
“I think they were more aggressive with advertising saying, ‘Hey we’re here, look what our assets are,” said Stringer. “I think they advertised and they marketed themselves in terms of that proximity and quality of life and the access very well.”
The incredible growth in the county’s federal contracting base would have happened no matter who was in charge of economic development, Fuller said. Being close to the nation’s capital and the Pentagon, with an international airport nearby and good schools and a favorable quality of life sells itself.
But what Gordon was good at, added Fuller, was deftly “packaging” Fairfax’s array of assets to fit a particular company.
“It was more than just marketing. This was matchmaking,” Fuller said, a much more consultative approach to economic development. “He didn’t come across as just a county employee who was parroting a script. He wrote the script.”
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Copyright Washington Business Journal, reprinted with permission