- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2000

Veronica Cain is frustrated.
The Fort Washington, Md., resident is tired of traveling all the way to Tysons Corner Town Center in Virginia to find upscale stores that Prince George's County, Md., lacks.
"There's not enough quality stores," Ms. Cain said. "It's aggravating that you have to travel an hour on the Beltway to get things that don't fall apart after you wash it twice."
Ms. Cain is by no means alone. Her sentiments are echoed throughout Prince George's County, Md., by residents who for years have had to cross county lines to find national upscale retailers that are saturating every market but their own.
Prince George's, the richest county in the nation with a majority-black population, has long been neglected by upscale retailers like Macy's and Nordstrom.
County residents have plenty of money to spend, but most stores in the region simply do not carry the top-quality merchandise local shoppers increasingly demand.
"It's a mystery in terms of why the stores won't come," said Arthur Turner, president of the Towns of Kettering Homeowners Association. "We feel like we're begging for [retailers] to come to us and that's a bad situation to be in."
But things are beginning to change for the better.
The county is in the midst of an "upturn," says Timothy Wanamaker, vice president of local economic development for the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp.
Despite the presence of desolate shopping centers and vacant store fronts, the county has caught the eye of top developers intent on turning the area into a destination drawing people in rather than driving them away.
Within the past few years, under County Executive Wayne K. Curry's administration, Prince George's has become home to new and improved attractions like FedEx Field, Six Flags Great Adventure (formerly Adventure World) and the recently opened Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex.
On the retail front, residents hope projects like the transformation of the US Airways Arena into a main-street retail center and the proposed retail, dining and entertainment mecca at National Harbor in Oxon Hill will encourage upscale retailers to take a new look at the county.
Some are concerned that big-name retailers have avoided Prince George's because of its mostly black population.
"This is an untapped market for quality retail," Mr. Wanamaker said. "Retailers aren't used to seeing a majority minority population in a suburban county that has high household incomes."
Prince George's County's population which totaled 781,760 as of January 1999 is about 57 percent black. The county's population is expected to grow to nearly 941,000 by 2025, according to estimates from the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission.
Those residents are making more money and are eager to spend it.
Median household income in the county was $51,100 in 1998, according to the Park and Planning Commission, up nearly 13 percent from comparable 1998 data from the Census Bureau.
The county's median household income in 1995 was $45,281, according to the most recent Census numbers. The county's income is not nearly as high as Montgomery County or Fairfax City, which reported 1995 median household incomes of $59,652 and $55,711, respectively. Still, Prince George's incomes are much higher than the national median of $34,076, in 1995.
"If you're making the money, whether you are white, black or Hispanic, you want to buy the same things," Mr. Wanamaker said.

Traveling dollars

A successful upscale retail environment would not only satisfy residents' shopping needs and tastes, but it would also put money back into their own community. When residents shop outside the county they are feeding the tax base of the bordering counties instead of their own.
"We're naturally trying to attract more upscale retail," said Kap Kapastin, chairman for the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce's retail committee. "Money travels across the bridge and there's no need for that. We want our own upscale retail. We're entitled to it."
Currently some shopping centers both enclosed malls and neighborhood strip centers are full of second-rate retailers, and local, service-oriented merchants and are missing the brand name stores that residents want.
And even some of the department stores like Hecht's and JC Penney that are located in area malls don't offer the quality or quantity found in stores outside Prince George's. Merchandise is often second-rate or even damaged.
Ms. Cain, visiting the Landover Mall earlier this month to get her hair braided at the Safari Afrikan Konnection, said that's why she shops outside the county.
"You have to travel to get quality clothes," she said.
At Landover Mall, just off the Capital Beltway, national quality retailers are surprisingly scarce, especially for a mall that touts "familiar names" as part of its tag line. National retailers like FootLocker, Lerner, Lane Bryant, Kay Jewelers and International House of Pancakes are located there. But popular retailers like the Gap, Nine West, Express, Eddie Bauer and Britches are conspicuously absent.
The mall's anchors include Sears, Hecht's and a JC Penney Outlet Store, while space for a fourth anchor has remained vacant since Garfinkle's closed in 1990. Mall officials could not be reached for comment.

Dealing with a bad rap

Developers and real estate brokers admit it's difficult to bring in the quality retailers residents want despite the disposable income in the area.
Some say the county's outdated reputation of a crime-ridden area is to blame for retailers' lack of interest. However, the total number of violent crimes in Prince George's County has actually dropped 9 percent over the last 10 years. The number of homicides in the county decreased 27 percent since 1989.
Even burglaries, both residential and commercial, have declined by 20 percent in the past decade, according to Prince George's County Police.
Some restaurateurs have said the county's limit on liquor licenses has prohibited them from locating there. In response, county officials introduced a bill that would let restaurant chains in certain areas have more than one liquor license pending county council approval, Mr. Turner said.
Retailers also have said that the process for getting building permits, certificates of occupancy or rezoning approvals is much more difficult and time-consuming in Prince George's than in other area counties. While officials dispute that, the county has tried to simplify the process for retailers.
"Prince George's County has a stigma attached to it for what reason I'm not really clear [on] and it's difficult to get national retailers here," said Grant Ehat, executive vice president of JBG Rosenfeld, which owns and operates several properties in the county including a semi-vacant Hampton Mall. "It makes no sense."
The 253,000-square-foot mall off Central Avenue, which is anchored by Staples and Home Depot, has at least six empty storefronts and four abandoned free-standing sites in the parking lot.
However, things may be looking up for the mall which just signed on Outback Steakhouse as a new tenant. Construction will begin on a building in the parking lot after the steakhouse gets the required permits, which should take no more than two or three months.
Mr. Ehat is trying to find more upscale tenants to fill in the mall's gaps between stores like Bally's, Ames and the other neighborhood retail and service-oriented merchants.
JBG Rosenfeld plans to revamp the mall's outdated facade, but those plans are on hold until new tenants are found.
"Part of the issue is we haven't had the type of quality retail development for [new retailers] to locate into," Mr. Wanamaker said.
Retailers aren't interested in shopping centers that look run-down or have large vacancies that would prohibit shoppers from coming. The quality, upscale merchants are attracted to flourishing, street-front locations or centers with modernized facades and a broad-based appeal.
The residents' cries for quality shops in their community does not mean that retailers have neglected Prince George's completely.
For example, the Beltway Plaza Shopping Center in Greenbelt has an AMC Theaters mega-movie complex, Pet Smart, Sports Authority, Burlington Coat Factory and will open a 130,000-square-foot Target in October.
The Bowie Gateway Center, located at Routes 50 and 301, in Bowie, has added Pier 1 Imports, Borders Books and Music and Ruby Tuesday. The center is doing very well with retailers and restaurants reporting "great sales," Mr. Wanamaker said.
But residents want these quality retailers in the central and southern parts of the county and they hope two future projects will get the ball rolling.
The US Airways Arena site in Landover will be transformed into an $85 million retail and entertainment complex developed by the Cordish Co. of Baltimore.
The project, to be a main-street design with retail facing a central courtyard, has only one signed tenant: Magic Johnson Theatres, a mega-movie theater complex that will serve as one of the anchors. Cordish officials promise to deliver more upscale retail, but they won't disclose any potential tenant names.
The retail complex, which will begin construction later this year, is expected to bring the county more than $120 million in taxes over the next 10 years.
Meanwhile, National Harbor, a $1.5 billion project being developed by the Peterson Cos., will have upscale retail, dining, entertainment, office space and hotels on 534 acres along the Potomac River shoreline. Although it is not expected to open until the end of 2004, Peterson officials are already making a preliminary list of interested tenants.
"There's no question [these projects] will add to the positive upturn in the county," Mr. Wanamaker said.
The Peterson Cos., based in Fairfax, already has proven what it can do for a community with Rivertowne Commons, a 380,000-square-foot shopping center in Oxon Hill. The company brought tenants such as Old Navy, Starbucks, Staples and AMC Theaters, meeting the demands of the residents there.
Starbucks opened its first Prince George's location in Laurel in September 1996, and has since opened six more locations. More recently Starbucks teamed up with Magic Johnson to open a Starbucks at the Shoppes at Metro near the Prince George's Plaza.
Starbucks regional marketing manager Shannon Jones said all seven locations are "performing outstandingly."
Old Navy, in fact, is making another mark on the county with a store in Prince George's Plaza.
That 25,000-square-foot store, expected to open in September, will "help us get more national retail into the mall," said Angie Goodwin, marketing director at Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville.
The 900,000-square-foot mall, with anchors JC Penney and Hecht's, is about 90 percent full. Officials are talking with a couple of different mid- to upscale department stores to fill in the 100,000-square-foot vacancy left by G.C. Murphy in August 1999.
"Like anything else, it's a challenge to get a good merchandise mix," Miss Goodwin said.

Efforts paying off

Within the past few years, residents and officials have made organized efforts to improve the county's reputation and attract quality retail to the region.
In December 1997, leaders from civic and homeowners associations spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to dozens of national retailers like Macaroni Grill, Pier 1 Imports and Dave & Buster's in an effort to get them to locate in the county or open more locations.
That year county residents also formed the "Shop Where You Live" coalition to get people to stay inside the county to shop.
Otis Ducker, president of the coalition, knows people haven't stopped completely from shopping outside the county. But the coalition's efforts made people aware that their money was going to support other county's schools, road construction, police and fire fighters and got people to at least decrease the amount of shopping they did outside the county, Mr. Ducker said.
Prince George's County officials have focused their marketing efforts on trying to improve the reputation of the county in some areas. They want Prince George's County to have the national reputation that attracts retailers to places like Montgomery and Fairfax counties.
County officials including developers and real estate brokers have attended such events as the International Council of Shopping Centers' national conventions as well as the local and regional events sponsored by the trade association.
Mr. Wanamaker, one of the county representatives in Las Vegas for this year's annual convention, said it's important for them to get retailers information about the market and its economic potential.
"We're marketing ourselves now," Mr. Wanamaker said. "We have a higher profile than before."
Through these focused efforts, "people understand Prince George's is an economic force," Mr. Kapastin said.
The county is also in the process of getting a $10 million commercial building loan fund that will be used to help renovate both retail and office projects and help "turn around the state of retail in Prince George's County," Mr. Wanamaker said.

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