Prince George's County and Maryland officials waited almost 20 years for the moment when a developer could say with certainty that construction would begin at a prized 535-acre riverfront site in Oxon Hill.

That moment came last week when the Peterson Cos. of Fairfax and Gaylord Entertainment Co. announced a joint venture in which a 2,000-room hotel and convention center will be built at National Harbor, often called the gateway to Prince George's County and Maryland.

The hotel-convention center combination, to be known as Opryland Hotel Potomac, appears to be everything that developer Milton Peterson promised--and more--four years ago, when he announced plans to develop National Harbor.

Gaylord's Opryland Hotel Potomac is only the first phase of development at National Harbor, a mixed-use development that will include 3,700 hotel rooms and 3.6 million square feet of convention, retail, restaurant, entertainment and office space on the sprawling hillside site overlooking the Potomac River, south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Far from being a country music venue, as some critics have suggested, Opryland Hotel on the Potomac will be a self-contained hotel and convention center, with restaurants, shops, indoor gardens, 400,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space and 2,000 guest rooms.

It is the same design concept that Gaylord Entertainment used in building the company's flagship Opryland Hotel in Nashville. A similar hotel-convention center combination is under construction near Disney World, and a fourth is planned near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

But if residents and county officials had reason to celebrate last week, critics regarded the announcement as a serious threat to the area's image and quality of life, trashing the Opryland project as a tacky symbol of racism and hillbilly culture.

An "aquatic circus" and a "visual blight," grumbled one Alexandria resident from his vantage point on the other side of the Potomac.

"The worst possible thing that could happen to the Potomac River," sniped another, echoing a sentiment that has fueled opposition to development on the site for two decades.

It's as though transporting the Opryland name from Nashville to the Potomac is somehow an affront to metropolitan Washington's wannabe cosmopolites.

But it is Washington's preoccupation with matters of race that cast the ugliest shadow over the celebration in Prince George's County last week.

"Let's face it: The name, Grand Ole Opry, is not race-neutral," Post columnist Courtland Milloy asserted. "It comes with a peculiar baggage--images of fiddle-playing good ol' boys and extreme racial segregation--that county officials ought to unpack and air out before the first ribbon is cut or a single spade of dirt gets turned."

And the sky is falling.

Something's terribly amiss when a major corporation agrees to invest $600 million in a community, only to have detractors scorn the investment and ridicule the organization's geographic and cultural heritage.

To their credit, however, the people of Prince George's County have not been deterred by this miasma of ignorance, prejudice and parochialism that hangs heavily over the Potomac.

They recognize the Gaylord project for what it is: a multimillion-dollar investment that is clearly the largest ever involving a privately financed project in the region.

The joint venture between Gaylord Entertainment and Peterson Cos. is not only a major breakthrough in Prince George's attempts to attract new business investment, but an economic development plum.

When completed, the hotel-convention center will generate an estimated $28 million in annual tax revenue for the county and $30 million for the state, in addition to providing more than 2,000 jobs.

But, alas, this is Prince George's County we're talking about--the economic orphan in what a Brookings Institution report described last year as "a region divided by race, class, ethnicity and opportunity."

Meanwhile, the fact that Prince George's is predominantly black is irrelevant in the context of Gaylord Entertainment's decision to build an Opryland hotel there.

What is relevant, however, is that company officials are keenly aware that Washington is a major market for meetings and conventions and that more than 23 million people visit the area each year. Gaylord Entertainment may be building a hotel on what Chairman E.K. Gaylord II described as the "most spectacular setting in the entire Washington-Boston corridor," but certainly all of metropolitan Washington will benefit from an increase in visitor spending that the hotel and convention center will generate.

Finally, the only relevant issues in Prince George's and Maryland's embrace of Gaylord are job creation, more opportunities for small- and minority-business owners, expansion of the county's economic base and improvement in the quality of life for the county's racially diverse population.