Even the most partisan among Prince George's County boosters probably would agree that Ben & Jerry Holdings Inc.'s plan to open a store isn't the breakthrough that will prompt upscale retailers to invest in the county.
The makers of "Vermont's Finest" all-natural ice cream have established their product as a premium specialty brand. So have the makers of Starbucks Coffee, which has four outlets in the county.
Clearly, Ben & Jerry's and Starbucks have satisfied themselves that there is a strong consumer market in Prince George's County. The nagging question is: Why can't any of their counterparts in high-end retail see that too?
The significance of Tuesday's announcement by Ben & Jerry's is far greater than the opening of another retail outlet. Indeed, Ben & Jerry's announced that it is seeking a minority businessperson to open its first store in the county.
That plainly is a commitment to support efforts by Prince George's County officials to expand opportunities for small and minority business owners.
"I'm very encouraged by what happened today," said Joseph J. James, president and chief executive of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. "This is the level of quality we would like to bring to the county."
But more than that, said James, "in a way, this is a test run of a concept of working with local governments to increase the number of Ben & Jerry's stores and, at the same time, to increase the number of minority franchises" in the company.
As an economic development initiative, the opening of Ben & Jerry's first store in Prince George's County obviously won't attract as much attention, perhaps, as the groundbreaking for a convention center or a high-technology business park. It is nonetheless a model for small business development initiatives.
It is moreover the essence of economic development at the local level, as defined by the National League of Cities several years ago. Local economic development, the organization said, "refers to changes that increase a local economy's capacity to create wealth for local residents, using human, financial and physical resources."
And that really is at the heart of another initiative recently announced by Prince George's County officials and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
There again, the focus was economic expansion and stimulating business growth in areas that are currently underserved.
For its part, HUD announced the award of $11 million in loans and grants to help stimulate development and establish a commercial building loan fund for older commercial areas in Prince George's County.
The fund will be used specifically to make loans in support of shopping-center rehabilitation, revitalization of commercial areas, construction of new commercial and industrial facilities, and the upgrade and re-use of vacant or underutilized buildings.
HUD officials estimate the economic development assistance initiative will leverage $43 million in private investment and create more than 900 jobs. Obviously, no one is in a position to say with certainty how many jobs will be created or what the private investment will be. What's more important in this instance is that the HUD loans and grants will help the county achieve a long-established goal of revitalizing older commercial areas inside the Capital Beltway.
The new assistance package will be used to help fund capital improvements at the Eastover Shopping Center on Indian Head Highway, near the District line; construction of a Shoppers Food Warehouse supermarket in Oxon Hill Plaza; and renovations needed to add a department store at Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville. Funds from the loan program will also be used to finance renovations at a Safeway Inc. warehouse in Ardmore.
The redevelopment of Eastover Shopping Center clearly shows that revitalization of commercial centers in older, underserved communities can increase the capacity of the county's economy to create a better quality of life, if not wealth for residents.
Prince George's County secured a HUD economic development assistance loan, which the new owner used three years ago to begin upgrading a dilapidated and fading shopping center. With a 61,000-square-foot Giant Food supermarket as anchor and an average customer count of 25,000 a week, the spillover effect on other stores in the center exceeds all expectations, according to Marvin Jawer, president of Jenco Group, developer of the remodeled Eastover.
The trickle-down benefit can be measured also in the increase in retail services in that part of the county and nearby Southeast Washington, as well as in the number of jobs that have been created for people in those communities.
Call it revitalization, smart growth or intelligent use of infrastructure. It can work if done the right way.
Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening may have been right when he suggested, as Prince George's County executive in 1992, that the county's revitalization strategy could become a model for other Washington-area jurisdictions.