Black political and business leaders in Prince George's County, worried that minority firms are being bypassed during a period of lucrative county growth, are asking county officials to improve the county's procurement policies and ensure that more public and private contracts are directed toward minority-owned companies.
Black legislators and leaders of black business groups are upset that the county has not met its goal to buy 30 percent of goods and services from minority firms. Now, legislators and their business counterparts are asking County Executive Parris Glendening to go beyond the percentage goal by setting up sheltered markets -- in which some contracts are set aside so that only minority firms are allowed to bid on them.
Blacks also are concerned that few developers in the private sector have hired minority firms for lucrative developments in the county.
"We are trying to get a handle on how come we can't get more of our people involved in this booming development that's going on in the county," said state Sen. Decatur W. Trotter (D-Prince George's). "We are not satisfied with the direction that we are going."
The push for stronger measures in private and public contracting reflects the black community's growing voice in political and economic matters in Prince George's, a county traditionally dominated by white politicians and business executives.
But blacks, who achieved unprecedented political success in last year's election, now compose 41 percent of the population and will make up more than 50 percent of county residents by the year 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections.
Prince George's has the best-educated and most affluent blacks in the country, with an average black family income of nearly $23,000, compared with $12,600 for blacks nationwide, according to census figures.
With 5,762 black-owned businesses, the county ranks sixth in the country in that category. County officials said that from 1,100 to 1,300 of those businesses in the Washington and Baltimore areas are able to supply goods and services for development projects.
Like their counterparts in the District, Baltimore, Atlanta and Detroit, black residents of Prince George's are demanding a greater share of the economic pie.
"We only want our just due," said Del. Sylvania W. Woods Jr. (D-Prince George's).
"The last census statistics said we are approximately 40 percent of the population. We want 40 percent of everything -- be that elected officials, be that dollars. It's fine we have some social rights, some civil rights that we got in the 1960s. Now we are moving toward economics."
New construction in the county totaled $400 million last year and about $10 billion in new construction is planned for the next 10 to 20 years, economic development planners said. Developers, who see the county as the last frontier in the crowded metropolitan area, plan to build 4.5 million square feet of office space this year.
Of the 48 major projects given "priority status" -- virtually a green light to sail through the permit process -- only two developers have agreed to contract a percentage of work to minority firms. John Lewis, developer of the $1 billion PortAmerica complex planned near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, signed a memorandum of understanding to let 15 percent of the project's contracts go to minority firms. Mark Fogel, developer of the $750 million Bowie New Town project, has agreed to a similar plan.
But critics of the county's informal program said they want a plan that would put teeth into the approach county officials use to encourage private developers to hire minority companies. Some of these critics have pointed to the District's program in which developers who ask for discretionary measures such as tax abatements and zoning changes are required to sign a minority utilization contract.
There is also concern that the county is not making purchases from minority firms. The most recent figures show that of the $67.2 million in contracts awarded by the county this year, 17 percent of contract awards -- $10.9 million -- went to minority businesses. Of the $46 million in purchases such as office equipment, paper products, automobiles and machinery made this year, the county bought 5 percent, or $2.3 million, from minority vendors.
The administrator of the county's minority purchasing program said the county should consider purchasing goods in smaller amounts and not locking in other businesses to long-term contracts to increase the chance for minority firms to bid.
But such measures would increase the cost to the county, the administrator said, forcing the county to balance the need to be fiscally prudent with giving more business to minorities.
In recent meetings with Glendening, black elected officials and business leaders asked the county executive to revamp the Minority Business Enterprise program and create a sheltered market within the county procurement system.
"When you say sheltered market to a lot of people, they go bananas," said Ralph Clark, chairman of the Minority Procurement Advisory Committee which oversees the county program. "Sheltered markets are necessary for the minority businessman, if you want him to get his fair share of the pie."
Under the existing program, minority firms bid along with white-owned companies for most contracts, although the county can set aside contracts worth $5,000 or less for minority bidders.
Under a sheltered market policy, the county could restrict bidding on certain contracts to minority firms, or just give the business to a particular minority firm.
Although Glendening said he remains philosophically opposed to sheltered markets or set-aside programs because of the potential for corruption, he said after meeting with the Minority Business Enterprise staff that he is willing to consider a proposal that would have built-in safeguards against abuse.
But the demand for stronger initiatives in the private sector has met resistance from Glendening and the prodevelopment business community, who fear that too many restrictions would discourage developers from investing in the county.
Glendening said the informal method, of making available lists of certified black businesses to developers or offering incentives such as increased density when land is rezoned, is working.
But proponents of a tougher policy argue that white developers will never change until they are pressured by the county.
"The county executive has created a climate here where this is the new business address to be in the area," said June White Dillard, president of the National Business League of Southern Maryland, a black trade association. "The minority business community is interested in being a part of that wave . . . . "