Diehards probably won't agree, but Prince George's County completed an important first step at Bowie State College this week in fulfilling its promise to help develop small and minority businesses. At least the 34 graduates of the county's new entrepreneurial development program will attest to the county's sincerity.

After a semester of intensive training at Bowie State, several graduates of the program have either begun new business ventures or plan to next year. Long before Tuesday's graduation program, however, participants in the program were given the results of a business analysis survey to help them target industries that have growth potential in the county.

An experiment in small business development, the program is designed not only to provide management training but to make available ongoing technical support after graduates go into business.

While the program is still considered an experiment, the prototype, which was tested in Boston, has been successfully adapted in at least six cities during the past two years, with Prince George's County the first jurisdiction in the Washington area to try it. Even though the program technically still may be in the experimental stages, it merits careful study as a model that could be replicated in other area jurisdictions.

Developed by James M. Howell, chief economist at the Bank of Boston and chairman of the nonprofit Council for Economic Action, the small-business development program is designed to do more than train budding entrepreneurs how to be good managers. Program coordinators also help participants identify business opportunities and assist them in their search for capital. In fact, graduates of Prince George's County's entrepreneurial development program will continue to receive assistance in obtaining capital from local banks. The graduates will continue to receive technical assistance in areas such as accounting, cash-flow management, legal matters and marketing.

The county's economic development corporation signed a contract with CEA a year ago to provide assistance in implementing the program. The economic development corporation enlisted the support of the county's banks and other businesses in a successful public-private sector partnership to help sustain the program.

County officials estimate that at the end of the second year of the program, more than 450 persons will have completed a short introductory course and that at least 125 will have completed the longer course taught at Bowie State. Officials estimate that at least 30 to 40 new businesses will have been started and that about 125 existing businesses will have been expanded and strengthened because of the program.

"We consciously targeted the minority community {in the first year} and will continue to do that, but we will broaden our outreach" beyond minorities, said Jeanette Ferguson, director of marketing for the county's economic development corporation.

Ferguson said the corporation would like to use the program to strengthen minority-owned construction firms that have experienced difficulty in the past.

Critics have dismissed the program as a minor attempt to help a few would-be entrepreneurs. They fail, however, to recognize the potential for developing an important segment of the county's economy. They also fail to recognize the county's effort in this regard in creating a stronger environment for small businesses in general.

No one promised that the entrepreneurial development program would a panacea for the problems encountered in the past by minorities and other small-business owners. Nor were there guarantees that it would immediately generate thousands of jobs.

To be sure, the program won't solve a good many other problems that exist in the county, real or perceived. It is, however, a major departure from past policies when no effort was made to strengthen small business of any kind.

By following through with the CEA model, Prince George's County officials are demonstrating a fresh approach to enlightened economic development.

Small businesses generally receive only lip service from state and local officials in their implementation of economic development goals. Typically, economic development policies are geared to produce high visibility symbols of growth. Those policies are perceived to be successful if they encourage massive downtown redevelopment, promote development of office parks and emphasize aggressive business attraction campaigns. Indeed, a recent national survey confirmed as much.

In too many cases, however, sparkling new office buildings and other highly visible signs of economic prosperity are the end products of market-driven economic growth rather than economic development as enlightened public policy.