Today's Coming Crisis Movie

Monday, May 9, 2011

New Rural Sales Pitch: Work Outside Washington D.C.'s Fallout Zone ; 2008, a premonition? -- Buried but not forgotten

Winchester and its neighbors along Interstate 81 in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley have much to recommend themselves to potential employers, including a low cost of living, access to a major highway and views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.

More recently, though, the area has been successfully trumpeting another attribute: It is just outside the "blast zone."

In a little-noticed migration with implications for both greater Washington and the valley, several federal agencies, including the FBI, are relocating operations to the I-81 corridor. Helping drive the shift is the government's emphasis on security in a post-Sept. 11 world, which turns Winchester's location 75 miles from Washington into a geographic ideal. It is far enough from the capital to escape the fallout of a nuclear explosion -- a distance often estimated at 50 miles -- but still close enough so that employees can get to the District relatively easily when they need to.

"There's a certain distance they need to be out from the strike zone -- and Winchester is outside of that," said Jim Deskins, economic redevelopment chief for the 26,000-person city.

The moves represent a level of dispersal even beyond other recently announced federal moves, including the military's planned relocation of 22,000 jobs from the District and inner suburbs to Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax County and the FBI's relocation of its Northern Virginia field office from Tysons Corner to Manassas. Local officials and planners have criticized those moves, saying they will worsen sprawl and traffic congestion by moving jobs away from downtown and mass transit.

Whether the moves to the I-81 corridor raise similar concerns is a matter of debate. Federal officials argue that the valley is not only more secure, it's preferable for planning and budget reasons. The cost of land and labor are lower in the valley, and with workers moving into the fringes of Northern Virginia and even West Virginia in search of affordable homes, moving operations to a place such as Winchester could mean shorter commutes for many. That, in turn, could mean lower turnover and a more productive workforce.

Leading the shift is the FBI, which chose Winchester over other towns of similar distance from the District as the site for a big centralized archive that by 2009 will employ at least 1,200 people, many of them now working in Washington and Baltimore. Some employees already are working in a temporary facility outside Winchester, a nondescript building that used to hold a printing firm and is now studded with security cameras and bollards.

FEMA has chosen a farm just outside town for an operations center that will employ 700 people. Local officials say this would include positions moved from Mount Weather, the government's hilltop emergency center on the border of Loudoun and Clarke counties, so that that facility could be devoted to national security instead of natural disasters. (read more)