In colonial times, the Port of Bladensburg was a bustling commercial center. European sailing ships brought English and French goods and took back American agricultural products. Sailmakers and other maritime craftsmen worked nearby along the shores of the Anacostia River while traders gathered to buy and sell goods.
The port was also the site of several historical events. It was here that the British launched their attack on Washington during the War of 1812, after defeating the Americans in the Battle of Bladensburg.
Duels were fought between weary travelers who would stop and partake in the libations served at local inns. A duel between U.S. Reps. Jonathon Cilley of Maine and William J. Graves of Kentucky in 1838 prompted Congress to outlaw dueling.
By the end of the 1800s, shipping activity began to fade. The town's waters became shallower, limiting access to the port, while larger ports like Baltimore were developing. More lucrative trade centers were established and the economic vitality of Bladensburg declined.
Today, about five small businesses are all that remain of the town's old commercial area. Empty lots are strewn with trash in some parts of the business section.
The riverside marina area is all but barren. There is a small boat, sail and repair shop, and a few private boats moored at its docks. Except for the recently revamped Indian Queen Tavern, where George Washington reportedly slept, and the Peace Cross, a memorial to fallen World War I servicemen at the intersection of Annapolis Road and Alternate U.S. Route 1, little remains of Bladensburg's colorful history.
But town and county officials are trying to revive interest in Bladensburg, with help from a University of Maryland professor and his students.
After learning that a steering committee had been formed last summer by Prince George's County Council member William B. Amonett to study the idea of turning Bladensburg into a tourist and business center, William Collins, professor of planning in the urban studies department at the University of Maryland, put one of his classes to work.
The result is an ambitious plan for combining the town's past with a healthy economic future through a series of revitalization efforts that would involve government, businesses and private investors.
Thirteen juniors and seniors in the university's urban studies and architecture departments, who labored throughout the fall semester, presented their plan to the Port of Bladensburg Steering Committee in mid-December.
The plan envisions meshing history with tourist activity. The marina area, owned by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, would become a colonial village with stores, small eateries and historic shops for crafts such as ropemaking, tobacco production and blacksmithing. The focal point would be a large county innrestaurant.
Like period villages such as Williamsburg, Va., storekeepers would be dressed in costume; there would be musicians and historic demonstrations in the streets.
The plan also calls for revitalizing the town's commercial district. Businesses would be asked to remodel their storefronts. An underpass would be built beneath the Bladensburg Bridge on Annapolis Road to connect the marina and commercial areas.
The students also recommended changing the town's traffic patterns, building pedestrian and bike paths, lining the streets with trees and reworking some of the public rights-of-way.
Donald Reider, one of the students who participated in Collins' urban problems seminar, said it was a difficult but rewarding experience.
"We found the project tremendously valuable because we got to work with people in county and Bladensburg's government directly as planning consultants," said the 21-year-old urban studies senior. "We took the project from step one and used theory we had learned and put it into practice."
"It is just a marvelous piece of work," Amonett said of the plan. "Seeing Bladensburg vital again has been a dream of mine for a long time. We now have to take their plan, sift through it and get it ready for presentation to a private investor."
Collins expressed confidence that the final redevelopment plan will incorporate most of his students' concepts. He said the students also suggested that before the redevelopment begins, inexpensive promotional activities could be planned to attract private investment.
"We looked at such things as festival days and other activities promoting the port, which would not require a lot of public improvements or initial investments," Collins said.
Amonett said the committee will begain work on the plan immediately. He said he expects to start the revitalization effort within 90 days.
Plans for the country inn would need approval from the county's planning board and council. The Bladensburg Town Council also would review the plan and "have considerable impact" on the county's decision, according to Town Administrator Eric Morsicato.
Approval of the remaining development may involve a series of complicated steps, according to Richard Stevenson, the park and planning commission's associate director of parks and recreation and a member of the steering committee. Some tracts of land are state-owned, while others belong to the county, private owners, the town and the federal government. All these groups would have to be involved in any final land use decisions, Stevenson explained.
Warren Kahle, the County Council's planning coordinator and a steering committee member, said he could not estimate the cost of the project, but said the work "should take less than a decade."
Town Administrator Morsicato said the Town Council has not reviewed the plan in detail.
"This development is long-awaited and we are happy it is beginning," Morsicato said. "But it will take a lot of work and there are a lot of problems to overcome."
Aside from money, which everyone agrees has to come from private investment, the redevelopment effort faces other snags.
There are zoning questions to resolve. In addition, the site of the proposed country inn lies in a flood plain and would have to be raised. And there is the big question of interest in the project, especially by potential investors.
"I have seen some proposals come and go because of a lack of financial and other interest," Stevenson said. "We can only hope that someone with a lot of money will come in and do the job."