New GMU Press Book Details Economic History of Fairfax County

Posted: June 16, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: June 15, 2009 at 3:09 pm

By Dave Andrews

Fairfax County, Va., didn’t become one of the most affluent, educated and populous counties in the country just by chance. It took a special group of civic leaders to guide the county to where it is today.

The story of this quest to create a place that would be more than just a suburb of Washington, D.C., is told in the new book “The Fight for Fairfax: A Struggle for a Great American County” by Russ Banham.

Published by GMU Press, the book tells the story of many county officials, real estate developers and defense contractors. Their vision for what Fairfax County was to become was met by many obstacles and challenges. But thanks to their unyielding “pro-development attitude,” Fairfax has become one of the most prosperous counties in the nation.

“The book is considered to be controversial in many ways, as it strongly expresses the point of view of those who were on the development side. I think everyone needs to hear their story,” says Jack Censer, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences where GMU Press is housed. “The book is very well done, well documented and well argued; it’s really worthy of notice.”

The book is the result of a broad collaborative effort among the writer, developers and publishers. Censer specifically notes the considerable contributions of Kathleen Clare of GMU Press and Marcella Drula-Johnston of Spectrum Publishing.

One vital component of Northern Virginia’s progress is mentioned throughout the book: George Mason University.

Mason’s early years are well chronicled, with special attention given to George Johnson’s tenure as university. During his term spanning more than 18 years, Johnson doubled enrollment to more than 20,000 students, unveiled 30 new degree programs and oversaw the construction of nearly 100 new buildings.

When Johnson stepped down as president in 1996, the incoming president, Alan Merten, knew he had big shoes to fill.

“George was the entrepreneur,” Merten is quoted in the book. “People said to me when I got here, ‘Alan, you’re replacing a cowboy, a fellow with guns blazing into the room to get things done.’ And George did what was needed. He started a university and it grew enormously. My job was to sustain this growth.”

However, the book states that no one has done more for Mason, and the county as a whole, than attorney and developer John T. (“Til”) Hazel Jr. Among other things, Hazel helped acquire the land on which Mason was built and led the effort to establish a law school at Mason. He also served as rector of Mason’s Board of Visitors, received the first Mason Medal in 1987 and served as trustee and president of the George Mason University Foundation.

At a recent reception to celebrate the book’s publication, Merten and Johnson were joined by Gerald Baliles, former governor of Virginia, Hazel and other local business leaders such as Sidney Dewberry and Dwight Schar.

In his comments at the reception, Baliles emphasized the remarkable history and pace of the county’s progress.

“[Fairfax] rose from a somewhat sleepy, if not rural, county, to a dynamic jurisdiction with a vibrant economy and strong educational institutions … all in three or four short decades,” Baliles said.

“The basic needs of our society – the infrastructure of our roads, schools and service programs – do not flow from the expression of a wish or the flip of a light switch,” he added. “These things come from a systematic and strategic commitment of political will and continuous financial investments over time.”

The book will be available to order in July. See press.gmu.edu/fightforfairfax for more information.

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