Fairfax County hopes to lure brewery, restaurant, or both to the Workhouse Arts Center

County leaders walk past building W13 on their way to break ground on the latest renovation at the Workhouse Arts Center (via Supervisor Dan Storck/Facebook)

Construction is underway on Fairfax County’s latest effort to remake the former Lorton Reformatory grounds into a destination for local residents and tourists.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay, Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck, and other local officials broke ground Friday (June 24) on a renovation of two buildings — designated W13 and W15 — that once housed prison inmates.

Located along Ox Road on the west side of the 52-acre site, now known as the Workhouse Arts Center, the 4,500-square-foot buildings will get their brick exteriors restored, while their interiors are overhauled for future commercial tenants. The county has its fingers crossed for a restaurant or brewery.

“We hope that it provides food and beverage opportunities and places for people to come here and spend more time, not just to stop off, but spend the better part of the day exploring the Workhouse,” McKay said. “These buildings will go a long way to doing that.”

Funded by a $6.3 million county investment, the project will also transform the open space between the buildings into a plaza with a boardwalk, raised walkways, seating areas, trees, and new paved paths along Ox Road.

It’s part of a larger plan to redevelop the former prison complex that has been in place since July 2004.

Opened to the public in September 2008, the Workhouse Arts Center now consists of 11 restored buildings that feature art galleries, studios, classrooms, facilities for ceramics and other crafts, and the Lucy Burns Museum, which delves into the Lorton prison’s history.

Additional amenities envisioned for the campus include housing for resident artists and performers, an amphitheater or music hall, a 450-seat theater, a 300-seat performing arts center, a 600-seat events center, and an outdoor garden with a greenhouse.

A map of the planned Workhouse Campus in Lorton, with buildings W13 and W15 in red (via DPWES)

The W13 and W15 buildings have been approved for eating establishments with a total of 400 seats.

According to the county’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, a request for expressions of interest (RFI) to identify potential tenants for the buildings was issued in April 2021, and the design and permitting processes began last fall.

The RFI deadline has been extended twice, first in late 2021 and again this June “as a continuation of the original effort and to allow for additional inquiry,” DPWES said by email.

The county didn’t say how many responses it has received so far, but it contracted the real estate firm JLL in August to handle all inquiries.

“At this time, JLL, DPWES, and the County’s Department of Economic Initiatives are evaluating rental options for future action,” the department wrote.

After getting a go-ahead to proceed in March, construction contractor Facility Support Services LLC has started structural improvements and interior demolition work in both buildings, along with removing hazardous materials, according to DPWES.

DPWES anticipates completing construction later this year, with the buildings potentially being ready for tenant fit-out work in early 2023.

Storck sees a restaurant or brewery as a need not just for the Workhouse campus, which is gradually turning into a community hub with events like an annual Halloween Haunt and July fireworks, but for Lorton as a whole.

As the county imagines Lorton 20 years into the future, the area’s revitalization continues with several potentially transformative projects on the horizon, including a new community center and library, an indoor ski resort, and a proposed public park.

“We gotta make ourselves cool, and this is really that step forward, brewery, restaurant, fireworks,” Fairfax County Economic Development Authority President and CEO Victor Hoskins said. “These are the things that really make a difference to people.”