The business climate has changed markedly in Prince George’s in the 10 years that M.H. Jim Estepp, a former fire chief and County Council member, has headed the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable. And Estepp says that’s a big relief.
The roundtable, which recently marked its first decade at a luncheon at Wolfgang Puck’s Sunset Room in National Harbor, was for many years a place where chief executives of county businesses would find themselves commiserating about the state of the county government rather than celebrating its accomplishments. Those were the days when then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) ruled the roost, before he and his wife Leslie, a member of the County Council, went to prison in 2012 on corruption charges.
“In those first eight years, I could not have gotten a phone call returned from the county executive if my life depended on it,” Estepp said. But with a new administration headed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) in Upper Marlboro since late 2010, there has been a mood change among county business leaders, Estepp said.
“The administration that we have in place now is not afraid to do things, to meet the challenges partly as it relates to business and economic development, and the school system. Residents have been clamoring for that for some time,” he said.
A longtime Baker backer, Estepp said he and his fellow roundtable members are doing all they can to push the message that Prince George’s is open for business.
“Many people are surprised by the collaboration with this county executive,” he said. “Timing is everything. The organization is able to flourish because the county is flourishing,” he said.
The roundtable is made up of about 30 CEOs representing about 60,000 personnel, and has a separate community council of about 100 county residents. Its annual budget is about $200,000, with about $130,000 from member dues, according to its most recent tax filing.
Even in politically chillier times, members of the roundtable were able to lay groundwork for an improved business climate, Estepp said. The organization created a subsidiary organization, the Andrews Business & Community Alliance, which worked for the establishment of a public charter school at Joint Base Andrews and encouraged the establishment of special zones for businesses around the base that give them high priority when it comes to county regulatory approvals.
Members of the roundtable also participated in Baker’s transition team in 2010 and helped the administration devise new, less cumbersome permitting and development review processes, which Baker recently unveiled. And roundtable members also have devoted time to trying to resolve some of the county’s vexing problems, notably its underperforming school system and crime rate. (Estepp is chairing a committee for Baker that will help vet potential school board appointees).
Former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), a member of the roundtable and president of the commercial real estate firm NAI Michael, said much of the roundtable’s successes are attributable to Estepp’s ability to bring diverse groups in the county together.
“I think the county has been unusually fortunate to have somebody who grew up here, who served in office here, who had made and preserved deep roots here, and who after all these changes can talk to just every element of the Prince George’s community, which you know is a big quilt,” Curry said. “He has done that in a remarkable way. He has used all of that background to promote what is the best about the county and as a result has become an elder statesman in business and community affairs.”
Curry said that Estepp has been willing to tackle “taboo subjects, such as our long history of racialism, a 30- year- old school busing case that had to be overcome, a massive school construction program. Jim has not only dealt with that head on and forthrightly, he has hurdled that. He has lived it, he hasn’t just read the book.”
As to what the priorities will be in the next decade, Estepp said that the organization will focus on the next round of base realignments and closures, believing that Andrews is likely to expand. That in turn could help spur more business development in the county.
With next month’s scheduled groundbreaking for the Westphalia, a 479-acre mixed-use development, a rising mini-city near Andrews, “there is tremendous potential. The infrastructure needed for more growth will already be there,” he said.