Prince George's officials say the county is now ripe to become a "mecca of international business," according to their new slogan, and they are trying to spur economic development by activating and expanding a 25-year-old foreign trade zone.

The last attempt to attract companies with international ties by promoting a trade zone flopped. A duty-free trade zone set up in 1980 on 77 acres around the Collington Business Park in Bowie has been dormant since it was founded. The companies operating there are mostly service centers and warehouses, not importers and exporters.

"Perhaps the market wasn't right at the time that the trade zone was established," said Kwasi G. Holman, chief executive of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. "Now we have companies that are doing business internationally."

The county is preparing to propose that the U.S. Department of Commerce designate an expanded foreign trade zone around Steeplechase 95 International Business Park, a commercial center being developed in Capitol Heights near the Capital Beltway. The zone, which would be an addendum to the original trade zone in Bowie, would allow companies located there to export and import goods tax free. Prince George's officials estimate that the expanded trade zone could produce more than 1,000 jobs in economically depressed Capitol Heights.

More than 800 other U.S. counties have foreign trade zones, and Prince George's officials said they need one to compete for international business. The zones help importers save cash by deferring duties until the products leave the zone for sale. Companies can also transfer merchandise between trade zones duty free. In some cases, taxes can also be reduced. One part of a finished product might be taxed more stringently than the entire assembled product. For example, a company that makes bikes in a free-trade zone would not have to pay taxes on each individual bicycle part it imports. If the bike is manufactured within the free trade zone, taxes are paid on only the completed bicycle.

Patricia E. Hayes-Parker, vice president of the county's economic development corporation, said the county hopes to develop such a niche serving the Smithsonian Institution and other local museums. Businesses that restore art and artifacts could receive goods at the trade zone, repair them and easily transport them to local museums.

"One of the region's biggest importers is the Smithsonian," she said.

The plan for reviving the zone was sparked by a trade mission Prince George's officials took to Gambia earlier this year when a local company won a contract to build 2,000 homes for the Gambian government. The county executive and members of his staff will also fly to the eastern Shandong province of China next month to conduct a trade mission there.

Maryland's only other trade zones are at Baltimore Washington International Airport and at the Baltimore Harbor. A trade zone in Washington County is inactive. Fairfax County established a foreign trade zone in 1987 around Dulles International Airport on 270 acres, but no exporters or importers have located there either.

"Northern Virginia typically is not an industrial or blue-collar area, and a foreign trade zone is often conducive to being used for manufacturing and distribution," said Anita Kayser, director of foreign trade zone services around Dulles.

The high cost of labor in the Washington region might be a deterrent for Prince George's, said Peter Morici, an international business professor at the University of Maryland and former director of economics at the U.S. International Trade Commission.

"Washington is kind of an expensive region of the country for labor, [and] Prince George's County does not have a natural competitive advantage the way that Baltimore does with the harbor. Stuff has to be brought in by truck, acquire value [in the county's trade zone] and be shipped back out," Morici said. "If they get involved in restoration work, then it makes a little more sense. They could become a nexus of expertise."