- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

Back in the 1700s, there was no more stylish place in Maryland to build a country estate than Prince George’s County. With enough rich soil to support acres of tobacco, wheat and corn, plantations cropped up throughout the countryside.

“All the notables in 18th-century Maryland had plantations here,” says Pam Williams, assistant museums director for the city of Bowie. “They all had their town homes and their homes here in this beautiful, green space.”

Now it seems, history is repeating itself.

Today’s country estates are built on 2-acre lots in suburban cul-de-sacs, but the promise of land and luxury are once again a prime lure for Prince George’s County, where land is still a relative bargain.

The average home in the county sells for $321,000, according to the Prince George’s County Association of Realtors.

“Prince George’s County is exploding,” says Bill Stewart, a sales representative for Ryland Homes. “It is much, much less expensive than Montgomery or Fairfax or even the counties surrounding Baltimore.”

That’s one reason why the county is experiencing a residential and commercial building boom that is being hailed as a rebirth.

“Prince George’s County has been discovered,” says James Keary, county director of communications. “It’s booming as far down as Brandywine.”

Undeveloped Prince George’s County also offers attractions, like the natural oasis of Patuxent River Park, with its miles of hiking trails and Watkins Park in Upper Marlboro with its Old Maryland Farm and merry-go-round.

Jobs also are a big draw.

“There are plenty of jobs in Prince George’s County,” says Boyd Campbell, past president of the Prince George’s County Association of Realtors and owner of Century 21 Homes. “We’ve got traditional entry-level jobs and higher-level jobs in close proximity to Prince George’s County.”

With growth has come expanding transportation. Just last year, Metro extended its Blue Line three miles east to the Largo Town Center, making its first stop outside the Capital Beltway.

The $456 million extension was built in part to bring District shoppers and businesses into Prince George’s County.

The drive into the District has also been eased for commuters, thanks to the widening of Route 450 from a twisty two-lane to a four-lane highway. Along the way, several developments advertise $900,000 homes.

According to a Sept. 14 report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), Prince George’s County is leading Montgomery and Fairfax in commercial development, “and we anticipate that it could be the same for a few more years.” Mr. Keary says.

The same report shows commercial construction declined 11 percent throughout the Washington region in 2004. Prince George’s County, however, showed a 19 percent increase in commercial construction, with 45 new projects in 2004 adding more than 4.8 million square feet of space.

“Increases in office, educational, medical and other office spaced contributed to the total amount of new development which occurred in Prince George’s County,” COG reports.

Evidence points to a county on the verge of tremendous growth.

The Suitland Revitalization project may represent the biggest turn-around project so far.

The Prince George’s County Redevelopment Authority bought 140 properties in the financially troubled Suitland area. Buildings there are being demolished and replaced with town homes, duplexes and condominiums.

Whole new towns are being planned along Interstate 95 in Laurel. Builders are banking on a controversial new roadway for the already congested area.

“The Intercounty Connector will go right through that area and reduce congestion there,’ Mr. Keary says, referring to a proposed 18-mile toll road between Route 1 in Prince George’s County and Route 270 in Montgomery County, which has been in planning stages for 20 years.

The $560 million National Harbor project in Fort Washington, with a hotel, convention center as well as residential and retail areas is expected to employ 13,000 people.

And the M Square project at the University of Maryland Research Park in College Park just opened another building.

All of it adds up to big changes for the sprawling county that is trying to honor its agrarian roots whenever possible. Archaeological studies have become a standard practice at all the new development sites.

“The county planning board is interested in seeing the rich history of the county preserved,” says Joe Meinert, Bowie’s director of planning and economic development. “Whenever there’s even a remote possibility of slave burial plots or plantation life, they insist on a dig.”

Plenty of history is buried underground, but much has also been made of the history that has already been uncovered.

“This is a place that celebrates its wonderful cultural lore,” says Ms. Williams. “If you went to Hong Kong and ran into someone from Bowie, Maryland, they’d ask you what section you lived in. There is such strong identification with this place.”

From the Airmen Memorial Museum in Suitland to the American Indian Cultural Center and Piscataway Indian Museum in Waldorf with its collection of tools, weapons and artworks, museums celebrate the great diversity and history of the region.

“I think what has happened in Prince George’s County is pretty natural,” says Mr. Campbell, a fifth-generation resident of the county. The county’s antebellum past, Mr. Campbell says, isn’t nearly as impressive as its future.

“Knowing this place intimately, it wasn’t just a plantation place. There were tracts of land designated for farming, but they were farms, with regular people living in them,” Mr. Campbell says. “Just like now.”

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