The number of small businesses in Prince George's County is increasing, led by the growth in minority-owned firms. Job creation outstripped that of Montgomery County in 2003 and 2004. And residential and commercial developers have been targeting the area as a refuge from sky-high real estate prices elsewhere.
But while the business community evolves in the District's eastern suburb, its business groups have in some ways remained tied to the past. The result is four countywide business organizations, two old and two new, each serving a distinct membership.
Some business leaders are asking whether the current, loosely affiliated club of countywide business groups could do their jobs better together than apart.
"There is a feeling among some businesspeople in our county that there are too many business organizations, and at some point we need to make certain we don't duplicate our efforts," said M. H. Jim Estepp, a former county councilman and now chief executive of the Greater Prince George's Business Roundtable, a 21/2-year-old organization of county chief executives that has taken a leading role in the debate over slot machines in the county.
"I don't think it dilutes our voice," said Michelle Moone, chairman of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce, an organization that has been dogged by leadership changes and is now looking for its third chief executive in a year. "At the same time, I think that we could get more accomplished if we all came together and took those specific missions each group has and built them around our overall mission."
Each of the business groups in Prince George's strikes the same chords when it comes to business development in the county. In interviews with various business leaders over the past month, there were no cited instances in which multiple business groups caused a political problem or a rift within the business community. All the groups, for example, agree on the most pressing issues: streamlining the permitting and zoning process, improving public education and workforce development, and improving public safety.
Yet there are only informal ties among them. A "Leadership Council" from each group gathers once or twice a year, usually to co-host an event. While all the groups share members and in some cases board members, each, in its own way, competes for county businesses and their dues by targeting specific needs and interests.
"It's not just a small, sleepy county. It's a very diverse and vast group of businesspeople," said Gregory S. Proctor, an Upper Marlboro lobbyist who works for the Prince George's Chamber but is also a member of the Business Roundtable board. "And that's how many of these different business groups approach it."
Asked if the groups could work better together if one or more merged, Proctor said, "I think they serve different needs, and I think they work well together now."
Working against merger are long-standing fault lines in the county's social and business fabric -- divisions reflected in the organizations.
The Prince George's Chamber tries to be the political center for all businesses, big and small, in the county, and its services to members are focused on networking and trade shows. The Business Roundtable focuses its efforts on public policy and research. Although its current leaders and members are a racially diverse group of men and woman, in its early decades, it was dominated by white businessmen.
Historically, the Prince George's Chamber, formed in 1927, was dominated by the lawyers, developers and utility-company executives whose business was primarily in the northern and western parts of the county. It remains the largest business group in the county, with 850 members and a budget of about $890,000.
The 160-member Prince George's County Board of Trade, which bills itself as the home for the county's small businesses, was formed to help sole proprietors and farmers in the county's eastern and southern parts after World War II. And the three-year-old Prince George's Black Chamber of Commerce spends most of its resources training minority businesspeople and helping them navigate government procurement.
In many ways, these groups reflect the diversity of the county's business community: About 28 percent of all firms with payrolls in Prince George's are minority-owned, by far the largest percentage of any jurisdiction in the region. By comparison, only 18 percent of Fairfax County's business establishments are minority-owned.
The county's businesses tend to be small. Prince George's has about 14,000 businesses with more than one employee, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. About 12,000 of those have fewer than 20 employees.
Census statistics show that the overall number of Prince George's business establishments has held relatively steady in the past decade. But while the number of firms with more than 500 employees has grown by only 10 during that time, the number of firms with fewer than 20 employees has grown by more than 300 and accounts for most of the private-sector employment growth in the county.
Moone said that three years ago the chamber membership approached 1,000 under the leadership of President Wendi Williams but has declined in recent years, owing to the turnover in the chief executive's job. After Williams resigned for personal reasons in 2004, the chamber hired Kathleen M. Smith earlier this year. Smith quit four months into the job, and the chamber is conducting a search for her replacement.
In 2002, Hubert "Petey" Green and a group of 30 black executives formed the Prince George's Black Chamber. It now has about 150 members and an annual budget of just $60,000. Its mission is primarily to help small, minority entrepreneurs with education and business assistance programs.
Given the growth of minority enterprises -- 25,000 Prince George's companies, including more than 23,000 one-employee firms, are black-owned -- Green, president of the organization, said the black chamber was formed "by a need to have a voice" for black entrepreneurs.
"We have unique situations and unique barriers to overcome," he said. "There was no focus on small and minority-owned businesses at the time we started." While money is tight -- he said the group's $250 membership fee "can be a backbreaker for some small businesses" -- Green has tried to build membership by focusing heavily on service, both giving members educational tools to help them start and grow a business and encouraging businesses to volunteer at public schools.
In 2002, Estepp helped form the Greater Prince George's Business Roundtable, a group of 30 chief executives and presidents, including the heads of several prominent companies that are based in the county or do much of their business there, such as John M. Bond Jr. of Columbia Bank and car dealer Geoff Pohanka. The group's mission is to better involve business leaders in public policy issues affecting the county, such as public education and economic development.
While each group is unique, their separate missions would be undertaken by a single chamber of commerce in most counties.
"Clearly, unlike in Prince George's, we don't have anybody else at the countywide level that does all the things that we do, or even some of the things we do," said Richard N. Parsons, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.
Likewise with the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, which has active committees for everything from legislative issues to business relocation assistance. The Service Corps of Retired Executives, a nonprofit small-business coaching organization, has one of its three Fairfax County offices at the Fairfax County Chamber. It has just one office in Prince George's, at the county government's small-business assistance center.
Estepp defends the notion of multiple business organizations even as he acknowledges that too many could be detrimental.
"It's just like having different businesses. . . . Do we want one business to provide all our needs?" he said. "Nothing gives the chamber of commerce some inherent quality to address all of business's needs. Our members felt that their needs were not being met, but that's not a slight to any other organization."
"Each group has its own mission, and each offers something distinct to its members," Moone said. But she added that more consistent and regular collaboration among the groups would make the business community a more prominent player in community debates: "We would all be more effective, I think, if there was some way we could all pull all together."