Six months after Prince George's County spent $600,000 to buy the Palmer Park Shopping Center for County branch offices, construction has yet to begin.
With all but three stores closed, the decaying shopping center remains the haven for drug dealers and loitering teen-agers it has been for several years.
During the past two months as many as seven police officers have been assigned to patrol the shopping center to clear out the pushers and loiterers.
"It's been frustrating," admitted Wayne Curry, senior assistant to County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. "We want to get going on this project and we're stalled. The center is just sitting there, a real problem for the area and right now there isn't anything we can do about it."
County officials say they are hamstrung because the shopping center was purchased as part of a $1.4 million Department of Housing and Urban Development financed project.
After giving the county the initial money to purchase the shopping center, the HUD denied further funding until a complete plan for use of the shopping center has been submitted.
"We had been under the impression that we could begin on what we knew was going to be there and on things like the parking lot right away," said Curry. "Then we found out that wasn't so."
This has created problem. When the county first planned a multiservices project, things such as the county day care center, social services and the health department had been scheduled to move there.
However, since the Day care office, the social services office and the health department have since relocated or decided not to go to a central location. Only one division of the personnel department remains of the offices originally scheduled to move to the center.
Since then, the county has come up with a new plan to place a personnel training division, a police-community relations office, a community development administration office and a drug counseling center on the site. Nevertheless, commercial enterprises are still needed to fill the space-and small businessmen do not appear eager to move into the Palmer Park Center.
"With what's gone on there the last few years the commercial owners aren't exactly lining up to buy space," Curry said. "We have to convince them that with the rebuilding we're going to do, this will be a worthwhile place to have a business."
But Curry concedes that, even if everything breaks right,-the commercial enterprises come in, the HUD money comes through-it will be late spring or early summer at the earliest before any construction begins.
In the meantime, the county is faced with the task of keeping the property on Barlow Road from deteriorating further.
The shopping center, formerly owned by Nathan Weschler, opened in 1960 and according to local citizens, was a thriving part of the community.
"But then things changed," said Thyne Mallett, chairman of the Palmer Park citizens advisory board. "The owner allowed the area to get rundown and a lot of the teen-agers from the recreation center (located across the street) began using it as a hangout.
"When things got worse the businessmen began moving out. The center became a blight on the community. It kept getting worse until the police finally came in."
The police arrived on the scene about eight weeks ago, ordered there by Kelly, after Curry recommended such a move. "It was a matter of image," Curry said. "You just couldn't have all this going on right on government property. We had to make them show some respect."
The police, most of them in uniform have made about 20 arrests there, all involving minor drug charges, nickel and dime stuff," in police language.
Mallett says police presence in the area is a necessity. "The minute they go things will be as bad as they ever were," she said. "We need them in this area desperately."
But Laney Hester, president of the county's Praternal Order of Police, claims that is not so. "If you're going to try and make drug arrests you don't send uniform men in," he said. "All they can possibly do is make small posession arrests and nine times out of ten the person ends up back on the street in an hour or two anyway.
"It seems to me with our current manpower shortage that we're misusing man-hours, which translates into county-money."
However, Capt Michael P. Flaberty, police district commander for the Palmer Park area, pointed out that arrests were not necessarily the reason for the patrols.
"What we're looking for is deterrence," he said. "With the high visibility we've had lately the drug trafficking in the area has been cut down, people aren't being stopped on the streets as they have been in the past."
It appears likely that some form of police patrol will remain, since the county is determined to protect its property.
But in the meantime, the community services project remains in limbo. Kelly said he believes HUD is intentionally "dragging its feet," because of a dispute with the county over his intention to have the Baber Village housing project demolished.
Whatever the reason, the shopping center remains littered with glass and debris, the boarded-up stores covered with graffiti and the remaining stores protected against vandalism by steel bars.
"It was good to have the police down here even if it was just for show," said Victor Richardson, who works in the center's liquor store. "All they did was sit in their cars, but it kept things quiet anyway."