Mini-Silicon Valley sprouts on fringe of nation's capital

A suburban Washington area viewed as anti-growth through the mid-1970s is rapidly becoming a mini-Silicon Valley and is riding an economic boom. Fairfax County, Va., saw a new high-tech or electronics company set up shop on its turf every weekday in 1982. Most are small businesses, but GTE, Texas Instruments, and Sperry Rand have also established a presence in the area within the last few years. Tandem Computers is a California firm that relocated last year.

Keith Taylor, deputy director of Fairfax's Economic Development Authority, insists the county could upstage suburban competitors in metropolitan Washington. While Virginia does not offer tax abatements or similar incentives, a ''total fabric'' is available - including a labor pool and various amenities, plus access to the Washington research-and-development and communications complex.

''High-tech firms like to be close to each other, and what started to happen here since 1981 shows that this kind of economic growth builds on itself,'' Mr. Taylor said.

A vast high-technology network is already in place, hoping to capitalize on the federal computer contracts that hover in the $50 billion range each year. In 1982, these companies and allied electronic and light manufacturing groups made up the bulk of $250 million in new investments in Fairfax.

Data processing companies such as Boeing Computer Services and Computer Sciences Corporation are newcomers. Melpar's E-Systems, which makes listening devices for the fabled AWACS (airborne warning and control system) planes, is among the electronic R&D companies. Advanced biological, chemical, and environmental companies are also moving in.

''Not only are they continuing to move in,'' declares Waring Partridge of the Management Analysis Center in nearby Washington, ''but these companies are expanding, many at impressive rates.''

Less than a decade ago, there was just a handful of technical manufacturing and R&D organizations. Four national associations called Fairfax their home - and had staffs of no more than 50. Today the number in the former category is nearing the 500 mark, while 120 associations have headquarters or regional offices in the county, employing 4,000 there.

The work force is growing six times as fast as the population, which has risen dramatically since the 1960s. At that point, this 410-square-mile stretch of northern Virginia was an epitome of rural America, replete with slow-moving two-lane roads and hilly countryside and dotted with farmland.

The 640,000 residents present a contrast to the rest of metropolitan Washington. They are 95 percent white, with Orientals outnumbering blacks.

Fairfax boasts ''full employment,'' or a scant 4 percent unemployment. The labor force climbed from 24,000 in 1970 to more than three times that number today, and about 19,000 of the total earned their first paychecks just last year.

Some companies relocated to draw from the existing as well as potential work force. More than 40 percent of those employed in the county are involved in high technology or its close cousins, county officials assert.

Housing costs are rising in and around Silicon Valley, the California high-tech cluster, and Fairfax leaders feel this alone will help persuade others to move east. Joe Svatos is in charge of Washington operations for Lee Sammis, a California developer active in the Irvine community.

''We looked around the East a couple of years ago and saw that the planned town of Reston mirrored Irvine in many respects. Affordable housing for a highly skilled labor force is a strong reason to be upbeat about what's happening in Fairfax,'' Mr. Sammis said.

To erase its backwater image, the county went on a building spree of its own, constructing recreation and sports facilities. AT&T Long Lines and Satellite Business Systems, recent arrivals, are among the operations that feel the futuristic, California-style ambiance is critical to success in high-tech. Mike Brunner, a regional vice-president of Long Lines, thinks ''employee morale, productivity, and attendance'' improved since this AT&T division's relocation. He cites local amenities as a key reason.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, since it may be only a matter of time before price tags on homes catch up to those in Silicon Valley. In private, county officials concede that some areas under their jurisdiction require attention if gains from the current boom are to continue. Traffic congestion is a drawback in sections that would otherwise attract technology entrepreneurs.

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