Potomac News Online | Change Is the Word in Manassas

For decades, “change” and “economic development” have been the buzzwords in Manassas – a 10-square-mile city located 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. And yet city planners have also managed to create an old-fashioned downtown, preserving the community’s rich historical legacy.

With 94 percent of the city’s land now developed, Manassas faces the challenge of redefining itself as the region becomes more suburban and demographics continue to change. Fifty years ago, Manassas was still a “sleepy little dairy town,” according to Mayor Marvin L. Gillum. And yet International Business Machines Corporation’s decision in the late 1960s to locate in Manassas marked the beginning of rapid growth for the city.

Manassas had a population of 1,804 in 1950, according to local statistics. The 2000 U.S. Census counted 35,135 people in the city.

Rapid growth forced Manassas’ government to spend millions of dollars on infrastructure, especially during the late 1980s, when a new police station, city hall and museum were built. The need to control its own destiny led Manassas, once the seat of Prince William County government, to become an independent city in 1975.

Manassas today boasts a number of large employers, including Lockheed Martin, Prince William Hospital and Micron Technology.

The city hopes eventually to bring additional large employers into its Gateway Business Park. Located next to Manassas Regional Airport, the largest general aviation airport in Virginia, the area is one of the city’s last undeveloped tracts of land. Centreville Road and Mathis Avenue north of the downtown, as well as the area around the hospital, might also see economic development.

Growth in the area has meant significant changes in the make-up of Manassas’ population. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of Hispanic residents in the city rose from 4.7 to 15.1 percent, according to census statistics.

Proximity to transportation corridors has also made Manassas a popular home for commuters working in Washington, D.C.

One of the more significant developments in the look of Manassas, however, has been the revitalization of the city’s central district, known as Old Town, which is mostly made up of late 19th and early 20th century brick buildings.

As recently as 1995, 33 buildings were vacant in Old Town. It was during that year that the late Loy E. Harris, a local insurance broker, opened his Opera House Gourmet in the downtown. Harris soon purchased other buildings in the area.

His example, followed by other business leaders, helped transform Old Town into what it is today – a historical district providing an old-fashioned setting for restaurants, barber shops, coffee shops, a book store and even a jeweler and a clock store.

Efforts by the city and the nonprofit Historic Manassas Inc. have helped further enhance Old Town’s success. The city completed its $2 million City Square Project in 2002, centered around the new Loy E. Harris Pavilion. A renovated former candy factory became the home for the area’s Center for the Arts.

The recent commitment to Old Town is but a part of the city’s attachment to history and tradition, much of which is preserved by the Manassas Museum System.

Visitors to museum locations will learn of the Union and Confederate armies that waged war across the area during the 1860s or of how Jennie Dean, a local education booster, gained a reputation as a leading African American progressive in the turn-of-the-century South.

Tradition in Manassas is not only preserved in Old Town preservation projects and museum exhibits. It also lives in the city’s churches, which continue to thrive. Attendance, for example, has increased enough at Manassas’ Trinity Episcopal that it is building a new sanctuary in Old Town. All Saints Catholic Church, located in the western part of the city, is the largest Catholic parish in Virginia.

? City Hall: Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center St., is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Call (703) 257-8200.

? Schools: The Manassas school system projects is made up of five elementary schools: Baldwin, Haydon, Weems, Jennie Dean and George C. Round; Grace E. Metz Middle School and Osbourn High School. For information, call the School Board office at (703) 257-8800.

? Recreation and Parks: The city’s Recreation and Parks Department coordinates the use of school and city park facilities, which include softball and baseball leagues in the summer and an open gym program in the winter.

Residents may swim at Stonewall Park pool. To swim at the pool before 6 p.m., children from ages 3 to 5 pay $1.75; ages 6 to 17, $3.00; and adults from ages 18 to 55 pay $3.50. Senior citizens and children under 3 can swim for free.

After 6 p.m., children ages 3 to 5 pay 80 cents; ages 6 to 17, $1.50; and adults ages 18 to 55 pay $1.75. Senior citizens and children under 3 swim for free.

In total, there are 10 public parks throughout the city. For more information about city recreation programs or park facilities, contact the Parks and Recreation Department at (703) 257-8237.

? Medical: Prince William Hospital, 8700 Sudley Road, is a full-service hospital. Call (703) 369-8000.

? Travel: Interstate 66, U.S. 29 and U.S. 50 provide access to Washington, D.C.

Commuters also may take the Virginia Railway Express trains from Manassas to Washington, D.C. The city has two stations – one in Old Town and the other next to the airport. Call VRE at (703) 684-1001.

Buses to the Vienna Metro station and to Washington, D.C., are available through OmniLink. Call (703) 490-4811.

? Taxes: Manassas taxes real estate at $1.20 per $100 assessed value. Its personal property tax is $3.05 per $100 assessed value. Decals for vehicle and motorcycles may be purchased at City Hall.

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