The significance of Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening's blistering attack on opponents of large-scale development Tuesday goes far beyond sharp philosophical differences over business growth in the county.
To be sure, Glendening's attack on the "naysayers" and "the false prophets of no-growth" was a carefully worded assault designed to put antidevelopment forces on the defensive. His remarks were obviously calculated to mold public opinion in favor of his administration's program calling for diversified business development and carefully planned growth in residential and commercial areas.
His biting criticism before a decidedly receptive audience of prominent business and civic leaders contained the elements of a warning as well -- that resistance to planned large-scale development might be interpreted by potential investors in the county as a pervasive antibusiness attitude, possibly resulting in a slowdown in development and ultimately a decline in the county's economic vitality.
At the same time, however, Glendening's address was as much a signal to business interests outside Prince George's County as it was a scolding of proponents of no-growth. His attack on a "small group of misguided citizens," in a public forum widely covered by the media, effectively reassures investors that the business climate in Prince George's County has improved under his administration. In short, Glendening's address was a reaffirmation of his unabashedly pro-business posture.
It was, in fact, an official declaration to business that the Glendening administration is committed to an aggressive economic development program that has produced unprecedented investment in the county in recent years.
A tour of the northern end of the county, which the Prince George's Economic Development Corp. conducted last week for brokers, developers and other real estate interests, featured a new generation of development. It focused on high-rise office buildings, high-tech centers and business parks in campus-like settings -- along main transportation corridors. The tour also provided a graphic view of the legacy of unplanned development. Scattershot development along U.S. Rte. 1 in the county, for example, qualifies as Exhibit A for the case being argued by Glendening. Elsewhere, jumbled clusters of warehouses, surrounded by cheaply built garden apartments, presented sharp contrasts to more recent quality commercial and residential development. They were additional monuments to a lack of planning that marked the period immediately following World War II and well into the 1960s.
"I do not and will not allow the same thing to happen to Prince George's County while I am county executive," Glendening vowed.
Statements such as that have provided ammunition for critics who accuse Glendening of being a "pawn" of business interests -- a charge he emphatically denies. "My administration favors responsibly planned, large-scale developments because they create a rich and varied job market and a business environment which is essential to the well-being of all our citizens."
One need not be Glendening's speechwriter to recognize in that statement a pointed message for taxpayers and county residents in general. It serves as a reminder that other area jurisdictions, generally more affluent than Prince George's County, are embracing responsibly planned large-scale developments.
"Large firms and organizations that want to have an active role in the world's economy have no choice but to have a presence in Washington," Glendening declared. "Growth in our region is inexorable. Whether we like it or not, growth will come to Prince George's County. . . . Our challenge is to decide what type of growth we want and, then, how to manage it."
Given the momentum in economic development already under way in Prince George's County, Glendening probably won't have much difficulty making his case to relocation consultants and corporate decision makers. Key factors such as location, an abundance of low-cost land, a highly developed road system and quality of life already have been recognized as pluses for the county.
Glendening's quarrel with slow-growth advocates is another matter altogether. And the county executive may be correct in his conclusion that the dispute is "not a growth versus no-growth issue."
"I call it the I'm-on-the- boat-pull-up-the-ladder philosophy," a prominent lawyer in the county wryly observed.
While the most vocal opponents to large-scale development may be a minority, as Glendening believes, concern over the possible impact of some major projects is shared by many in the county. The trick for Glendening is to play an effective leadership role in addressing legitimate concerns of taxpayers who want economic growth as well as communities free from traffic congestion and other spillovers from commercial development.
Regardless of what happens, "the glove is down," as one member of the county's economic development advisory committee observed after Glendening issued his challenge this week.