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‘Downtown Stafford’ to be testbed for new Virginia smart city, awarded CIT grant

Stafford County officials presented a plan that would radically change the county’s courthouse neighborhood, making it a hotbed for new broadband technologies.

“Stafford is going to be ground zero for these things,” said Tom Foley, Stafford County administrator. “There are two places in the state where the state government is investing — Arlington and Stafford.”

The county is the recipient of a $100,000 grant to study the feasibility of making “Downtown Stafford” a testbed for a smart city.

The technology that would be employed in this effort would usher in a new level of 5G broadband service in the area around the county courthouse.

“These are speeds like you’ve never seen before,” said Michael Cannon, the county’s chief technology officer.

It would allow for the deployment of a smart grid system that would monitor everything from traffic congestion to light levels, from reading license plates on vehicles, to knowing which trash cans need to be emptied.

The grant is issued by the quasi-governmental agency The Center for Innovative Technology, as part of a public-private partnership. Stafford County will become a testbed for the technology, and the project will be studied by state officials to see if these efforts could be replicated in other cities and counties across Virginia.

The hope is that a community centered around technology will attract new companies that would want to set up office space, as well as younger residents who would want to live there.

The county plans to acquire the smart technology and house it, at first, inside the government center.

“If I’m [a 25-year-old], I’m moving to Arlington and Alexandria and getting a roommate. I’m not moving to Stafford,” countered Rock Hill District Supervisor Crystal Vanuch.

Vanuch was less than excited, not about the technology that would come with smart city, but rather with the 983 new apartment homes that are slated to be built around the courthouse as part of the new downtown community. She cited the lack of schools in the area that would be needed to house new students.

Multiple, five-story buildings are called for as part of the Downtown Stafford project, a mixed-use center that would feature retail, residential, and office space. County officials previously toured Rockville Town Square, in Rockville, Md., and said Stafford’s downtown would resemble it. Redeveloping the area around the courthouse has been talked about since 2006, but discussions on the matter have raised to a fever pitch over the past three years.

All of those new homes would affect county services like schools, public safety, and delivery of public utilities like water and sewer. Supervisor Gary Snellings, of the Hartwood District, asked county staff to produce a report detailing how the new homes would impact service levels.

County staff replied and assured elected leaders that a large, dense development is what is needed to make a downtown project work.

“If you want to have a vibrant downtown, you have to have 1,000 units to make it work,” said Jeff Harvey, the county planning and zoning director.

Those residents would be attracted to the area for its walkability, and proximity to shopping, in stores dubbed “smart retail” that allows people to look online and then come inside the touch and feel products.

Unlike two other stalled, privately-owned development projects, Aquia Town Center and The Garrison, both in North Stafford — the Stafford County Government owns much of the 28 acres of land on which the initial town center will be built. With that, the county will be in the position to call the shots on the project, as well as hire a developer to bring its vision to life.

In order to get a parcel of land that is easily developable, the county is eyeing a land swap with Jarrell Properties, Inc. that would allow for the development of the first major project, Fountain Park.

Nestled at the corner of Route 1 and Courthouse Road, adjacent to the county’s courthouse, Fountain Park would be a $168 million mixed-use apartment and office complex.

The deal, expected to move ahead this April, would also allow the county to use the property as temporary parking while a new courthouse is being constructed on top of the existing parking lot that sits between the county administration center and war memorial.

Eventually, a new, multi-story parking deck will need to be built to accommodate all of the parking in the neighborhood, said John Holden, the county’s economic development director.

Also for the project to move forward, the county would need to edit its comprehensive plan, changing the land-use designation for the courthouse area laid out in 2012 for “government” uses to a designation that allows for mixed-use development.

“We have a reputation in the state for being timid and too cautious… but if we pass on this opportunity, we deserve what we get,” said Garrisonville District Supervisor Mark Dudenhefer. “I’m a strong supporter of taking these risks.”

County officials said “downtown” would be a boon to the county, helping to capture some of the $1.2 billion spent in neighboring Fredericksburg City, Prince William, and Spotsylvania counties. It would also serve as a gathering point for residents who have asked for a place to hold festivals and events.

“I don’t know much about smart cities, but if it is something that is going to put us on the map, identifies us, and brings us together, it is something we definitely need,” said Board of Supervisors Chair Meg Bohmke, of the Falmouth District.

Other Supervisors joined Vanuch and voiced reservations. “I’m very skeptical about this because I know my [constituents] aren’t going to drive up there,” said George Washington District Supervisor Tom Coen.

Aquia District Supervisor Cindy Shelter reminded her colleagues about a failed public-private partnership for a small-business incubator at Quantico Corporate Center. Before it closed, the county invested over a half million into the failed center.

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