When Prince George's County economist George Smith first began compiling the county's annual "fast-track" economic development list, the county put advertisements in local newspapers to let developers know the program existed.

A decade later, developers vie for a place on the list, which is formally known as the county's "priority projects program." The list, the latest version of which was released last week, identifies those projects the county finds especially desirable and entitles those developers to quick attention from the county bureaucracy.

"I think people are beginning to see that fast-track status means something," Smith said. His department has had to make an effort to keep the list small enough "that priority continues to mean something," he said.

"It's very important to be on it," said zoning lawyer John Lally, who represents several clients on the list this year. "It sends a signal throughout the bureaucracy that the project is especially important to the well-being of the county. The rules are the same, the game just gets quicker."

The list is contained in the county's annual economic development plan, a yearly assessment of the government's goals and successes in bringing development to the county. Prince George's was once considered a backwater but has enjoyed a quiet but steady growth since the late 1970s. Since 1979, according to Smith, developers have invested about $250 million in the county and have built about 4 million square feet of office space.

County officials say the entire plan takes on new importance this year: County Executive Parris Glendening proposed in March to create a private nonprofit corporation to take on the responsibility for bringing companies to the county and helping desirable existing businesses to expand or improve.

Under the previous administrations, the county's Department of Program Planning and Economic Development took on this role, along with other time-consuming and diverse tasks, while county business leaders argued that a private group would be more efficient and more sensitive to their needs. The County Council voted 6-0 to accept the plan last week, and county leaders expect the new organization to begin functioning today.

Under the new proposal, the plan and priority list will be used as part of the contract with the new corporation to guarantee that many of the goals will be met.

"Last year, it wasn't a contractual agreement; there were no performance standards, nothing to ensure that the program would be carried out," said Susan Robbins, a Glendening aide who specializes in development.

In addition to the longstanding goals of attracting high-quality, diverse businesses, the county also hopes, Robbins said, to place more emphasis on better use of federal and state financing for businesses, integrating housing policy with the economic development goals and better use of local resources, such as the little-known parking authority.

The 1984 plan also lists 32 priority projects, from the Wild World amusement park and safari land in Largo to the Bay of Americas, a proposed mixed commercial-residential project in Oxon Hill, to the residential Woodmore project in Mitchellville. Office parks also are well represented, including the Inglewood Business Center in Landover and the Golden Triangle in Greenbelt.

A few of last year's 33 projects were dropped, including the controversial Mattawoman Town Center project in the Brandywine area and an industrial park in west Laurel.

Projects must meet a dozen different criteria to be accepted for priority status, including conformance to master plans, salary levels, spinoff potential, job opportunities and uniqueness.

Business leaders are optimistic the county will see even greater movement in development soon. "I think we're off to a rousing start," Prince George's Chamber of Commerce director John Rhodes said.