As data and communications head to Loudoun, a global tech hub emerges
Buddy Rizer, the county's director of economic development, pitches four game-changing assets:
-A collection of of more than 40 expansive data centers operated by the likes of Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon.
-An Internet infrastructure that carries as much as 70 percent of the world's Internet traffic.
-A tech-savvy, highly educated populace where 20 percent of the workers are specialists in data and communications.
-The emergence of Loudoun County as a technology epicenter, connected to the world by Dulles Airport and extended regionally by the planned Metro extension.
Four years ago Rizer sat down with a prospective company, hoping to bring business to Loudoun.
Before the meeting, Rizer mentioned that he was a salesperson for the department of economic development in the county that housed Dulles International Airport.
“By the time I got to the meeting somehow, through the old phone game, they thought we were from Dallas!” said Rizer. “When we first started, nobody [from the data center industry] knew anything about Loudoun.”
How things have changed.
Loudoun County has used the Dulles International Airport, Metro extension, global data-centers and one of the nation's most extensive Internet infrastructures to position itself for large economic development going forward.
The county houses more than 5 million square feet of data centers, with plans already in place to expand to 8 million square feet in the near future.
“I was the only economic developer at data center conferences," said Rizer. "I really had to learn data centers."
When he came into the organization as its first dedicated salesperson, Rizer had been working with the economic development organization in Frederick, Md. for a while on a volunteer basis and was two years removed from being a radio DJ.
He says he understood technology but understanding data centers was something he had to teach himself.
"Loudoun was way out in front on that. Now you go to these conferences and there are more developers there than there are actual data center companies.”
Attracting data centers has become more competitive, but because Loudoun came first in much of this, there is an expertise and understanding that is attractive to businesses. There is more certainty.
The infrastructure and understanding are certainly in Loudoun's favor.
"We have an Internet hub here, with 70 percent of the world's Internet traffic," said Rizer. It's a statistic he uses often: at meetings, in interviews and in conversations with companies.
The statistic is gaudy: seventy percent of the world's Internet. It has become a calling card for the department and perhaps one of its biggest legacies.
To understand Loudoun's development future, it helps to understand Loudoun's development past.
Before 1968, if you wanted to get to Washington, D.C., it was likely you were using Washington National Airport, now the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. In 1950 Congress decided Washington needed another airport and passed the Washington Airport Act.
According to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority website, "After a thorough study of many possible locations around the region, a 10,000-acre site, 26 miles west of Washington, D.C., was selected by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958.
It was the first in what Buddy Rizer calls Loudoun County's economic development game changers. Dulles International Airport brought international relevance to Loudoun County, and that meant a major hub of transportation would be in the area for decades.
The economy and population grew steadily and didn't see a major change until 1998, when the Internet – and more broadly the tech boom – caused a sharp rise in the median household income for the county starting in 1997, a year after AOL moved their corporate offices to Dulles.
It was what Rizer called Loudoun's second economic development game changer.
The tech bubble burst in the early 2000s, and the sharp rise in median household income leveled off until 2008.
In 2007 the Department of Economic Development made data centers a priority. They decided that because of the ubiquity of cell phones and the ever-increasing importance of cloud computing, data centers would only proliferate.
Rizer was very proactive in bringing in data centers. It was a boon, Loudoun's third game-changer.
While data centers may be the present and in some ways the economic development future for Loudoun County, Rizer looks at the Metro as an opportunity to diversify the employment and economic base of the county, to change the game.
"We want to have a diverse economy. That is something that is important to us, because no community should be dependent on one revenue stream," said Rizer.
Opportunity might be the word Rizer uses most in conversation these days.
As he sat in his office on the fifth floor of the County Government Center on Harrison Street in downtown Leesburg, Rizer explained his vision for the economic development future of Loudoun like he was about to introduce a new model of car.
"We're very focused on Loudoun 2018. We're looking ahead to what does Loudoun look like. What does success look like when rail gets here?" said Rizer.
Rizer notes the ability to develop land around Metro stations from scratch is a huge opportunity.
He mentions that Loudoun is one of the few places in the world where that is possible around an urban Metro the size of the one in Washington.
"We need to start really thinking about 'what can this look like?'' said Rizer. "Tax district planning, infrastructure, education, workforce and workforce housing."
He calls rail a possible billion-dollar opportunity for Loudoun County.
Rizer believes that it's a fundamental shift in the way people get around that will make Metro such a game-changer for the area.
"People want walkability, people don't want to spend all their time in cars. They want to be in communities that they can get back and forth to in an easy way."
Medical technology, big data and cyber security companies are all sectors Rizer believes could take part in the future of the region, mostly because they logically could take advantage of the tech workforce and business- friendly environment already here.
As part of a cluster strategy, Rizer wants to see Loudoun as an international business location, as well.
Development One Loudoun has the ability to build a World Trade Center, and there will be two train stops connecting Loudoun to the airport.
Rizer is all at once Loudoun’s greatest cheerleader and its most positive advocate.
When asked about the county’s chance to get a bid for the FBI headquarters, even though a plan to put the building in Springfield is being backed by major statewide politicians and the requirements that have been placed on the building effectively eliminate it from contention, Rizer responded “I don’t think it’s ever wasted effort when you see that kind of opportunity … You never know where one deal leads to the next.”
Loudoun County has three transportation and roads projects for 2014 that are among the most expensive in the Washington Metro area, according to the Washington Business Journal Book of Lists.
The widening of Route 50, extension of Pacific Boulevard and the Dulles Metrorail are examples Rizer gave of some of the infrastructure the county is putting in place to support new development.
So now that rail is inevitable, what could that fifth major game changer be?
Rizer believes a four-year university could be a huge boon. He seems to throw it out knowing it will likely breed more questions than answers and delivers few specifics, but much of the development in the area started as an idea.
It seems for Rizer, it's never too early to get the wheels in motion for development in Loudoun.