Gregory Holmes worries his home town is becoming a "dumping ground" for low-end retail projects. Derrick L. Plummer is tired of "irresponsible developers" who have ignored his neighbors' appetite for upscale shopping. Eugene A. Marriott Jr. wants to clean up local shopping centers that have turned into "eyesores."
So the three men, all lifelong Prince George's County residents, have banded together to lobby for higher-end shopping in the county. Not content to merely attend zoning meetings or write letters to retailers, they have launched a nonprofit organization called Upscale Prince George's.
The group's strategy will revolve around grass-roots campaigns, monthly meetings with retail experts and, eventually, a Web site. One early goal: to persuade the owners of neglected shopping centers to invest in upscale improvements.
As a backdrop for its first news conference yesterday, the group chose Beltway Plaza Mall in Greenbelt -- "a relic and an example of the low-end retailing plaguing our county," said Holmes, 35, a construction project manger. He spoke from behind a lectern that had been relocated twice at the behest of mall security, eventually ending up near a Checkers Drive-In Restaurant.
The men are social acquaintances and said they are bound by a simple frustration: an absence of upscale retail in a county that has become a mecca for the region's black middle class. "If you want to go out for a nice dinner, you have to go to a place that asks 'Do you want fries with that?' " said Plummer, 24, who works for a mortgage company.
When it comes to department stores, for example, Prince George's County trails far behind the rest of the region. It has 1.97 square feet of department store space per household, compared with 4.7 in Anne Arundel, 5.1 in Montgomery and 5.2 in Howard, according to a report prepared by McComb Group Ltd., a retail consulting firm.
And while all three of those neighboring counties have upscale department stores such as Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor, Prince George's has only Hecht's. The issue has become a sore point for county residents, who have launched letter-writing campaigns and Web sites to court their favorite stores and restaurants.
The new organization's agenda mirrors that of the county government, which is aggressively courting high-end stores such as Nordstrom and white-tablecloth restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory. The county has met with executives from Nordstrom Inc. and Westfield Group, which operates upscale malls in Annapolis and Bethesda.
The founders of Upscale Prince George's "won't have much longer to wait," for high-end shopping, said Kwasi Holman, president of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp.
Marriott, a 41-year-old minister, said he should not have to leave the county to shop at a high-end store or eat dinner at a restaurant where his wife "feels comfortable."
The organization's founders dismissed crime -- frequently cited by local brokers as a factor in Prince George's retail composition -- as an explanation for the lack of upscale shopping. "Crime is not unique to Prince George's," Plummer said. "Crime is everywhere you go."
The owner of the Beltway Plaza, the scene of yesterday's news conference, said it has invested $35 million in the shopping center over the past decade and is considering several renovations that would improve its appearance and mix of stores.
But Marc "Kap" Kapastin, general counsel for GB Mall Limited Partnership, which owns the mall, said its focus will remain discount stores, such as Target, Value City Department Store and Marshalls. "We have been the discount retail shopping center in the area for more than 40 years," he said. "Within that context, we always want to improve."