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Turning to high-tech, Washington tries to recast its image as just a government town

The most recognizable features in Washington are the ones carved in stone - monuments to sacrifice, justice, and democracy.

But while that aspect of America's capital city is almost frozen in time like a tourist's snapshot, the rest of it has undergone dramatic transformation. The sleepy, Southern town of the 1960s has become a vibrant metropolitan area - a change that is visible in everything from the city's night life to the suburbs' surging high-tech industry, which some observers call the East Coast's answer to Silicon Valley.

With new job growth coming almost entirely in the private sector, today's Washington-area workers are more likely to design corporate Web pages than to file federal forms.

The diversification of both the economy and the population - a gradual process that experts say has accelerated in recent years - shows that the advantages of being the US capital extend far beyond the abundance of government jobs.

One boost has been the heightened lure of capital cities worldwide. "The growing of the global economy raised the image of capital cities..., attracting a lot of international commerce [to the District of Columbia]" in the late 1960s, says James Gibson of D.C. Agenda, which works with local government and nonprofit agencies. The World Bank, for example, is the District's third-largest employer.

But it is the suburbs where the most eye-popping changes are under way. And although the government is no longer the main employer in the area, it helped to create one of the top technology centers in the US.

The northern Virginia-based phenom America Online Inc. (AOL), for instance, might never have made its way across millions of computer screens had it not been for the US government funding a computer network for defense purposes that eventually became the Internet.

Although the federal government scaled back defense and intelligence spending after the 1980s, the communications-technology base has adapted and grown - absorbing many former government workers and creating jobs faster than people can fill them.

Much of this growth is concentrated near Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia - the "high-tech corridor." "In terms of communications technology, it's probably the most important center [in the US], and it's continuing to grow and attract companies here," says Stephen Fuller, a public-policy professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

Jobs created by the explosion of high-tech entrepreneurship have contributed to the metro area's high average household income - $79,000 last year, according to Urban Land magazine. Each new tech job generates at least one nontechnology job as well, Mr. Fuller says.

One of the new kids on the corridor will be Intel Corp., which last month said it would build a $130 million East Coast hub in Virginia's Fairfax County. Last week, online giant also confirmed it will set up shop along the Potomac River, joining at least 3,800 technology firms in the Washington area.

A skyline around here is not complete without construction cranes, and four of them hover over new buildings on the Dulles headquarters of AOL. By next fall, about 3,500 of the company's employees will be based here.

Tysons Corner, a commercial intersection a few miles from Dulles, is another testament to the area's rapid growth. "I remember Tysons Corner [in 1965] when there was only a shopping center there," says Fuller. "Now it has more office space than Miami does.... It's the 11th largest downtown in the country - and it's not a downtown."

With about 20,000 unfilled jobs in what has been coined the InfoComm industry, schools here are deluged with people seeking computer courses. In 10 local technical programs surveyed by The Washington Post, enrollment jumped 33 percent between 1996 and 1998. Classes have been known to fill up during the first two hours of registration.

Shumlya Mohammad is one of those willing to elbow her way into computer graphics classes at the Loudoun campus of NOVA, Northern Virginia Community College. "You see advertising everywhere, you know, computers applied to almost everything," she says. She plans to work or open a business in the area.

While Washington has long been a draw for immigrants, the boom in new jobs has been partly responsible for the area's growth rates among Asians and Hispanics, which outpace the national average. Entrepreneurship among Asians, for instance, includes both Indian high-tech executives and Korean restaurant owners.

Five of the nation's top 50 Hispanic companies in terms of revenue are in the high-tech corridor, as are 36 percent of the top black-owned technology firms, says Gerald Gordon of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.

Although many new immigrants still gravitate to the city, some are moving directly to the suburbs. When NOVA opened in 1965, 99.5 percent of its 761 students were white. Now it has more than 60,000 students, the majority of whom are US racial minorities or citizens of other countries. "More and more, it looks metropolitan," says Hashem Anwari, a computer-science professor at the Loudoun campus. "The diameter of the city is getting larger and larger."

The diversity has begun to saturate Washington's culture. Longtime residents say even something as simple as a wide variety of ethnic restaurants makes a big difference.

Despite all the tech-related suburban growth, the District itself plays a key role, both as the largest employment base and as a cultural center. After a 30-year "era of abandonment" of central cities, a renaissance atmosphere now prevails, says Mr. Gibson. "Washington became extremely notorious [for crime and poverty] ... but I think we're beginning to recuperate from that image."

The District follows a national trend toward lower crime rates. In 1998, serious crime here dropped to its lowest level in more than two decades. An FBI ranking of serious crime in 1996 shows more than 30 metropolitan areas with higher rates than D.C.'s.

City nightlife, everything from Salsa dancing to cafes, has picked up to the point that the subway system recently pushed weekend hours past midnight. The MCI Center, a sports and entertainment complex that opened in 1997, has drawn people downtown. "I've seen traffic jams [in the central city] at 11 p.m," says George Grier, a demographics expert who has lived in the area for nearly 40 years.

Although the District lost at least 40,000 households to the suburbs between 1990 and 1996, some demographic trends have been positive for the city. People who have moved in recently are generally young, well educated, and well paid. Still, the concentration of poverty is high: In 1996, 15 percent of D.C. residents were poor, compared with only 4.3 percent of the metro area as a whole, according to Mr. Grier.

The city may be able to draw people back as concerns grow about traffic congestion and the impact of suburban development. But District officials aren't counting on it. Instead they've organized a technology council to explore what they can do to attract high-tech growth.

"Washington is dynamically adjusting to the changes in the region," says Gibson. Officials don't expect to compete head to head with the suburbs, he says, but the "wiring" here and the proximity to national policymakers may help the District market itself more aggressively.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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