On the Map
Mason alumni are major players in Prince William
By Lynn Burke
Prince William County is becoming a major player in the Washington metropolitan area. And leading the county as it takes on its new status are two George Mason alumni: Sean Connaughton, J.D. ’92, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, and Craig Gerhart, M.P.A. ’90, county executive.
Connaughton (R) was first elected to the county’s top spot in 1999. At the time, the county had the highest tax rate in the state and few services to show for it. “We saw the economic boom that was coming to Northern Virginia in the 1990s passing Prince William by,” he says. What was bothering Connaughton must have been bothering other county residents because in his first bid for public office, he defeated a 24-year incumbent and was elected chairman at large. He was elected to a second term last November.
Since Connaughton first took office, a number of improvements, including expansion of the school system and police force while cutting the tax rate by 15 percent, have taken place. These improvements were possible because of what Connaughton says was his biggest accomplishment to date: getting the county’s financial house in order. “When you have your finances in order, you can concentrate your budget on investments that matter, such as schools, transportation, and public safety,” he says. “If you focus on those things, businesses looking to relocate come to you.”
As county executive, Gerhart works closely with Connaughton to capitalize on opportunities that have opened up in the county in recent years. Gerhart has worked for the Prince William County government for 20 years, progressively moving up the organization in such positions as assistant county executive and deputy county executive. He was appointed county executive in 2000.
“I think we could become a first-class community by all sorts of standards,” says Gerhart. He believes the investments made over the next few years will yield a community infrastructure that includes cultural attractions, historic preservation, and performing arts venues that will distinguish the community from all others.
Both Connaughton and Gerhart see George Mason’s Prince William Campus as a great asset to the county. “The partnership we have with George Mason is probably one of the leading elements in our economic development program,” says Gerhart. “The rapid growth of that campus has brought a real sense of identity to the area, and the partnerships that we have forged with George Mason have been absolutely vital to some of the economic development clients we have been able to bring,” he says. One of those clients that both men cite is Eli Lilly, which is building a $425 million facility right down the road from the Mason campus.
“It really does show you the incredible relationship George Mason has within the Northern Virginia community,” says Connaughton, adding that Mason is part of the community and has taken leadership roles in improving the region.
“Having a university presence, especially one that understands the needs of the region’s workforce and businesses, is one of the biggest selling points we put forward to companies,” says Connaughton.
The admiration expressed by the county for the university is more than reciprocated. “Prince William County and George Mason University have become partners for the improvement of each of our futures,” says Randall Edwards, executive vice president of the university’s Prince William Administration. “The university is fortunate to have Craig and Sean playing leading roles for the county as the university develops facilities and programs at the Prince William Campus.”