$50 million jobs fund in Prince George’s approved by council

After months of wrangling over oversight, the Prince George’s County Council on Tuesday approved a proposal by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III to set up a multimillion-dollar fund to attract businesses.

The council unanimously voted to establish the Economic Development Incentive Fund, a major initiative by Baker (D) to create and retain jobs in the county.

The legislation is “an example of us coming together in the best interest of the county,” Baker told the council before the vote.

Several members of the business community testified in favor of the bill, saying the fund will make the county more competitive with others in the region.

M.H. Jim Estepp, president and chief executive of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, described the bill as “probably the single most important piece of legislation to move our county forward.”

Estepp predicted that the fund will ultimately result in fewer residents leaving the county for jobs. About 65 percent of county residents now travel elsewhere to work, including to the District and Northern Virginia.

This year, Baker unveiled the plan to create the $50 million fund as part of the fiscal 2012 budget. The council was to vote on the bill before it adjourned in August, but lawmakers questioned how the money would be spent and whether there were sufficient checks and balance, leaving the bill stalled in committee.

Worried about the number of amendments council members proposed, Baker withdrew the legislation until the council could return from summer recess in September.

The delays were troublesome for Baker, who has made economic development a top priority of his administration.

Under the plan, the county would act as a banker, providing loans to businesses. It could also dispense guarantees, conditional loans and grants. Funds would be available for, but not limited to, mixed-use developments; transit-oriented developments; land acquisition; equipment purchases; and working capital, including training and relocation expenses. The loans would have to be repaid within 10 years, and the county chief administrative officer or that person’s designee would determine rates and terms.

Under the original proposal, the council could review expenditures only of $1 million or more. But about six weeks ago, Baker and members of the council reached a compromise, giving the council power to review grants of $250,000 or more. The measure moved out of committee by a 4 to 1 vote, with Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) casting the dissenting vote.

Patterson voted in favor of the measure Tuesday. He said he wanted a requirement for local minority businesses and wants to ensure that county residents benefit from the jobs that are created. The bill encourages providing opportunities for minority businesses but does not have specific guidelines.

“Clearly the votes are in favor of the bill, and that’s a good thing,” Patterson said. “The next stage is the plan to closely monitor it.”

 
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