Prince George's County officials might find it useful to conduct a tour of the county for members of the commercial real estate industry in metropolitan Washington.

Midway through a recent seminar for people who make their living selling real estate and leasing office space, it became clear that many in the audience know little about the office market in Prince George's County.

"If you get out there and take a look at it," one panelist said of Prince George's, "it isn't as bad as people paint the picture."

"It already is a competitive office market," he added, as murmurs of incredulity filtered through the audience.

And little wonder. Another panelist on the program had just given Fairfax County a four-star endorsement as the center of the coming boom in high technology. In fact, Fairfax County is far and away the safest and most attractive investment for real estate interests, he suggested.

Under Parris Glendening, its new executive, nevertheless, Prince George's County "is as responsive as any government in attracting business and they've had some very good successes" in recent months, another panelist observed.

To be sure, Prince George's County has attracted considerable interest by investors in recent months. But there is still that perception of the county as a rural jurisdiction overrun by warehouses and cheap garden apartments.

"I think Prince George's County has a lot to offer the bottom-line oriented company," a commercial real estate executive said recently.

Several companies that have invested in the county in the past two years obviously agree. High-quality office projects along the Beltway and nearby have attracted strong investor interest in Prince George's County.

Five years ago, "nobody would have thought about" locating in Prince George's, says James L. Eichberg, president of Smithy-Braedon Co. But the investment climate has changed dramatically in the past two or three years, Eichberg noted.

Indeed, business parks and office towers dominate the landscape along the Beltway, particularly in the central and northern portions of the county. And the advantage of being near the University of Maryland and NASA have attracted a fair share of high technology firms to the county.

Why, after being ignored for so many years, is Prince George's County emerging as a viable competitor in the industrial and office market?

One reason, says the acting director of Prince George's Office of Economic Development, is that the county didn't grow as rapidly as other Washington jurisdictions following the post-World War II exodus to the suburbs.

"As a result, there was a natural land value which was depressed," explained H. Joseph Edwards. "And until those land values jump up--and I hope they don't for awhile--you have a very attractive price."

In addition, Edwards points out, Prince George's has a water supply and sewer capacity unmatched by other local jurisdictions.

But the county has lacked the aggressive and comprehensive economic development programs created by other jurisdictions, especially Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

That is about to change, however. A transition committee that Edwards chaired for Glendening has recommended that the economic development office be removed from government and restructured as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization. The corporation would contract with the county government to run the economic development program.

The county council is expected to approve Glendening's proposal for the corporation in time for it to be operational by early July.

Edwards' previous experience in the private sector where he worked in economic development has convinced him that "there is a certain amount of rigidity in the governmental structure that you can't get away from." As a corporation, the county's new economic development arm will ensure greater productivity and flexibility and more private sector involvement, Edwards believes.

"We've looked at our competitors and we're going to monitor them," he promises. "We are going to work with them and we're going to learn from their mistakes."

In the meantime, says Edwards, Prince George's County "is already an outstanding county and has as much to offer as any other jurisdiction in the State of Maryland and certainly in the metropolitan area."

If the county is going to be successful in getting that message across to potential investors, it may be necessary for it to hold a series of show-and-tell tours for the uninitiated in the local commercial real estate industry.