Winston-Salem and Northern Virginia Economies

Growing up in Northern Virginia in the 70s and 80s, entering the professional workforce in 1989, it was interesting to watch the growth and change of the economy.

As a kid all of my friends’ parents worked for the government, the military or for a foreign embassy. No one was actually from Northern Virginia; they had all moved from somewhere else to work for a government agency, hometown politician or the military.

Then in the 80s things began to change. More people worked in the private sector, although that was still government related (defense contractors & non-profits). When the 90s dawned the telecom and internet companies took off like a rocket, and the economy became much more dynamic and diversified.

That diversity came in handy during the recession of the new millennium. When the internet and telecom companies crashed, the government contractors grew exponentially thanks to our rapidly increasing US military expenditures, homeland security, etc.

There were some residual effects: from the mid-90s on the Northern Virginia real estate market exploded. New development grew faster than most residents would have believed just five years earlier (my first property, a townhouse, depreciated from ’92 to ’97, then made back the losses and appreciated 60% from ’98 to ’00).

New development and drastically increased property value led to modest wage earners’ needing to move farther out into the suburbs to find affordable housing. That worsened Northern Virginia’s already horrendous traffic to almost unbearable levels.

Earlier this year my wife and I decided enough was enough. We needed to get out of Northern Virginia and find a better lifestyle for our family. We chose Winston-Salem, NC for a variety of reasons and now that we’ve lived here for about four months I’m beginning to realize that W-S is transitioning much like Norther Virginia did 20+ years ago.

For decades this area has been a tobacco, manufacturing, textile and furniture economy. Sure there were other industries represented, but those made up a small minority of the economy. Now W-S is a healthcare, finance and increasingly tech-based service economy.

Local leaders seem to be embracing and encouraging this change. Groups like Winston Salem Business Inc.Piedmont Entrepreneurs Network, Small Business and Technology Development Center, Wake Forest University’s Babcock Angell Center for Entrepreneurship, and the Piedmont Triad Research Park have all sprung up to promote the growth of the tech and biotech sectors in W-S.

It will be interesting to see how the city and surrounding areas adapt and change. Northern Virginia was largely rural just 40 years ago, now it is suburban with a heavy emphasis on the “urban.” W-S reminds me of Northern Virginia 35 years ago, with an urban center, a small ring of suburbs and a 10 minute drive to get into the “country.” How long will this remain true?

It’s pretty obvious that W-S will not grow anywhere near the size of Northern Virginia, and probably not even as large as North Carolina’s two major metro areas, Charlotte and Raleigh (Research Triangle Park). But it will grow, it’s populous will probably skew more to the college educated/white collar side (currently 30% of W-S area residents have a BA/BS), and property values will begin to rise after a long recessionary period.

Like Northern Virginia many long-time residents will have to move farther out to find affordable housing, and residents with only a high school degree and no white collar skills will struggle to find a good, well paying job, or job training that will help them make the transition to the new economy.

Should be interesting…I just hope I can still get across town in 15 minutes ten years from now.

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