"We've got to stabilize and revitalize our neighborhoods. Like our families they are the heart of the American society," said Ed Smith, associate director of the White House office of public liaison in a speech before the Neighborhoods Uniting Project community congress held Saturday at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville.
Speaking before 400 visitors and NUP congress delegates from 12 north-western Prince George's county towns inside the beltway, Smith said, "Neighborhoods may not be getting all of the attention they deserve (from the administration) . . . but the government wants more than just citizens' complaints about problems. We need statements of endorsements, and more than anything, we need to know what to do and how we can do it better."
The civic activists attending the congress were ready to provide some of those suggestions - for the White House, for the state of Maryland and for the county.
In workshops and hallway discussions on tax reform, the cost of utilities, crime prevention, rent control, tenant power and Metro, delegates spoke up with criticisms, complaints and partial solutions.
"We have a nice little community here," said Barbara Mercer of her home community of Riverdale. "And we would like it to stay that way."
Mercer, a member of the Riverdale Civic Improvement Association and a delegate to the convention, said she got involved in NUP activities "because we can deal better with local problems. It's only way to affect a change for everyone."
"There are too many people who are too complacent about their problems," said Dorothy Welch of Hyattsivlle. "We all do a lot of griping, but we often don't do anything about it. This is one of may roads and avenues to take to help us deal with our problem."
NUP was formed four years ago by Prince George's County residents and civic groups from communities within the beltway who wanted to stop the deterioration of older neighborhoods in the area. Members say they thought the whole focus of government attention through money, parks and police, was on the newer developing outlying regions, while their older neighorhoods were left, in may cases, to decay.
"We want to build up the neighborhood for the older folks and the young alike," said Barbara Horton of Mt. Rainier. A new resident to Prince George's county, Horton became a member of Mt. Rainier's Concerned Citizens in a fight over stop signs on her block. "We have to ask questions," she said.
Delegates put the heat on several members of the County Council, state General Assembly and federal commissions who attended various workshops. Occasionally shouting matches developed, apparently out of frustration or lack of information on the issues. The dissension only seemed to underscore the fact that the NUP group is not always completely united.
The tax and assessment question ia sore spot with many of the NUP delegates. In a special workshop on the issue, tenants, apartments ownerxs and homeowners took different sides and found different solutions to the problem. "We have to pay for the urban sprawl - it is expensive," said one woman who owns an apartment house. "We cannot afford to have everyone own their own quarter acre of land."
"We are picking up the tax bill for apartment owners," said another homeowner.
The workshops did produce, however, an issue platform for the incoming president, Cora Wood, and her board of directors to wok on. Last year NUP took credit for reducing the Prince George's County tax rate, for scooter patrols, for releasing funds for park regulations and for reducing the utility rate increase.
County executive Winfield M. Kelly, who addressed the meeting, said he was frustrated by the convention's outcome. "Many of these programs are things I asked you to support many years ago. Why didn't you suppor them then?"
Kelly complained about a NUP newsletter that, he said, implied the county had purchased an amusement park and country club for its citizens.
"This is untrue. This newsletter is written by your staff not by you. Is our communication so bad that you don't call us to check this out? We want to meet with the board not with your staff, you, elected officials to elected officials."
Kelly told the group he would continue to work on the assessment problem and would take as many of NUP's suggestions as possible to the General Assembly in January.
The message was clear. Residents of the inner beltways area are determined to keep their homes, determined to keep their neighborhoods. As Mabelle Munch, a senior citizen from Riverdale testified in the tax workshop, "I have paid my share. You know, we want to live here. We kind of like it here, belive it or not."