Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III wants to fix his jurisdiction’s reputation as a bastion of corruption that frightens away potential business development.
Baker, a Democrat, who was elected to a second term last year, portrays himself as a reformer trying to fix the mess left by his predecessors, who include Jack B. Johnson, who pleaded guilty to a single count of tampering in June 2011 after taking money from developers to help them land federal contracts.
“I look at Prince George’s County four years ago when I took over, and the biggest issue we had, or at least one of the biggest issues, was we couldn’t get businesses to want to come to the county,” Baker said. “The reputation and feel about where the county was going was not great.”
But Baker, who previously served in the House of Delegates, touts his administration’s backing of a stronger ethics bill, passed by the General Assembly, that restricts how campaigns raise money in the county; the creation of a $50 million Economic Development Incentive Fund to attract businesses; and the streamlining of the county’s permitting process as examples of the steps he’s taken to change the way Prince George’s County is perceived.
As a result of the focus on economic development, he said, the county has been able to attract such businesses as Whole Foods and Harris Teeter that would’ve been unimaginable previously. That focus has also resulted in development beyond National Harbor in places like New Carrollton and at the old Laurel Mall.
“In terms of economic development we’re starting to see confidence back into the market there, back into that Washington [D.C.] region, which will help the county grow [and] help the state grow,” Baker said.
But Prince George’s County still faces plenty of obstacles to attracting business and development. According to a report produced by the county on economic development strategies, the county’s economic slowdown predates the 2008 financial crisis and can be traced back to 2004, when the county’s economy began to fall behind the national average in terms of total employment. Those problems have only been exacerbated following sequestration and other federal spending cuts because so many residents work for the federal government.
This past year various reports have showed the county struggling with key economic indicators, including an office market that has been hampered by old stock when many companies are looking for Class A office space; a multifamily market that has been slowed by employment woes; and a residential housing market still hampered by state’s high foreclosure rate.
Prince George’s County has also been hurt by other perceptions. Potential residents looking for an urban lifestyle see it as a primarily suburban area. And those looking to live in the suburbs are put off by the county’s reputation for poor schools and a relatively high crime rate.
Baker acknowledges the hurdles facing the county but believes that his administration has a strategy to reverse the negative trends of the last decade. He wants to try to mitigate the reliance on federal government by attracting private companies with economic development funds, encourage transit-oriented development at five key Metro stops in the county and promote the quality of the workforce, especially because the county is home to the University of Maryland, College Park and Bowie State University.
There are starting to be signs that a recovery is underway in the county. Projects like the redevelopment of the Laurel Mall as well as massive overhaul of downtown Largo are underway. Prince George’s County is also in the middle of fighting for what could be an enormous economic boost — being selected as the new home for the FBI headquarters.
Currently, the county has two of the three sites, Greenbelt and Landover, that are being considered as possible new homes for the agency, now based in Washington, D.C. The headquarters represents 11,000 new jobs and will have an estimated $2 billion economic impact.
Much of Baker’s ambitions to make the county an economic powerhouse will involve his ability to work with Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, who was elected last year on a platform devoted to making Maryland an easier place for businesses to flourish. But actions by the governor to cut education funding and his hesitancy to embrace the $2.45 billion Purple Line light rail route connecting Bethesda in Montgomery County with New Carrollton in Prince George’s County have produced some early friction between the two executives.
“I think like anybody we have to give him a chance to get his feet wet but you get thrown right into a 90-day session, I know what that’s like. You’re in a budget deficit, and there’s some things that quite honestly, some decisions that he’s made early on that have hurt us in the county,” Baker said.