Last year Shanga Hankerson, son of singer Gladys Knight, was reading a newspaper story when two things caught his eye. The story said that Prince George's County had a median household income approaching $60,000 and its population was 63 percent black.
Hankerson, who owns two restaurants in Atlanta, arranged to tour Prince George's, a trip that convinced him to open his next Gladys Knight and Ron Winans' Chicken and Waffles restaurant in Landover. "It just felt right," he said. "When I got there all I could see was that it was bustling."
The restaurant is scheduled to open in January at the Boulevard at the Capital Center. It will be near the 12-screen movie theater owned by basketball superstar-turned-businessman Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
Johnson's theater, a plush complex with a star-shaped chandelier and rocking-chair style seats, will open Friday.
Meanwhile, Kwame Jackson, the smooth, young Harvard MBA who won his 15 minutes of fame as runner-up on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" last season, also has his sights set on Prince George's. He is partnering with longtime county developer the NAI Michael Cos. of Lanham to build a 500-acre residential, retail and commercial real estate project with upscale amenities such as a performing arts theater and a medical facility. The project is called Rosewood, after an African American community in Florida that was burned and destroyed in a 1923 massacre.
Jackson said his company, Legacy Holdings LLC, wants to build its massive project on Pennsylvania Avenue 15 minutes outside of the District, to give Prince George's a development similar to Reston Town Center or Tyson's Corner.
"We are bringing to the county a development that is long overdue," he said.
Jackson hopes to break ground in 2006. He has not disclosed the financing of the project. But Maryland has committed $73 million to improve the roads around the project site. Prince George's officials said the county will pay for some infrastructure improvements as the project progresses, although it has not committed to a dollar figure.
For more than a decade, Prince George's County struggled to attract the kind of retail, restaurant and residential development that long flocked to Montgomery and Fairfax counties.
In recent times, however, investor interest in Prince George's County has been growing, as more businesses chase the rising wealth of the black middle class there. Prince George's was ranked 49th in median household income, far above most of the 3,000 counties in the nation, although still below other D.C. suburban counties. Prince William County ranked third, Fairfax ranked fifth and Montgomery County eighth in the U.S. Census Bureau's 2003 American Community Survey.
The county also has had steady job growth in recent years. From 2000 to 2003, jobs in Prince George's grew by 2.8 percent, faster than growth in the District (2.1 percent) or Montgomery (0.6 percent) but behind the 3.9 percent growth in northern Virginia.
Prince George's officials say it makes sense to them that wealthy African Americans would recognize the county's potential before many others and they predict the high-profile investments will attract more businesses. "These African American [developments] will now begin to show to those outside the county that the leading entertainers and athletes have recognized" Prince George's as a good investment opportunity, said County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D).
Hankerson said wealthy blacks are well aware of the opportunities in communities with large numbers of black professionals because "we are out there with money and we are not really fully serviced." Deciding to open a restaurant in Prince George's "really wasn't that hard of a decision." He opened his first restaurant in 1998 in a predominantly black part of Atlanta, and a second one the next year.
Why chicken and waffles? It is the classic meal of traveling musicians, Hankerson said. When they stop in a diner to eat after a performance, it usually is too early for breakfast yet too late for dinner, so musicians order a mix of both. The cafe will serve plates that average about $10 and will host live jazz and R&B bands. It will seat 200 and stay open until 4 a.m., Hankerson said.
Kwasi G. Holman, president of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp., said he thinks African American entrepreneurs think they may have more opportunities in the black majority county. "The county executive places a priority on minority investors participating in the renaissance of the county," Holman said.
County officials say private investments by celebrities could bring millions in tax revenue to the county, although some investments by famous African Americans here have faltered. Former Denver Nugget and Georgetown Hoya basketball player Reggie Williams opened a sports bar and cafe in Bowie two years ago but is still working to find his stride. He says Reggie's Sportz Kafe is busy on weekends, but the 130 seats are largely empty Monday through Thursday.
Johnson was first lured to Prince George's by Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin. The county awarded Pollin and developer Cordish Cos. of Baltimore a long-term lease to build the Boulevard at the Capital Center, an outdoor shopping mall in Largo. Pollin signed up Johnson's theater as one of the first tenants.
When Johnson announced the theater deal in 1998, he was mobbed by autograph-seekers and he promised to do more business in the county. In 2000, he opened his first Starbucks in Hyattsville. He now has four of the coffeehouses in Prince George's. They are filled with jazz music and have patios and large lounge areas.
Johnson entered into a partnership with mortgage lender Washington Mutual last year. Together the two companies are opening financial service centers in majority black communities, including Largo.
Johnson and officials from his company did not return several phones calls and e-mails. In an interview about his Prince George's County investments last year, Johnson said, "This is an underserved community. . . . With the type of money that these people have, you've got to be kidding me. We just needed someone to step up to the table."