The phone still rings at Prince William County's Office of Economic Development, but the callers are different.

Developers are no longer hunting land for new office parks. Instead, small businesses are looking for help, either with getting permits or just staying afloat, Director John Gessaman said.

Charged with bringing in new jobs and expanding the tax base, the economic development offices of local governments often found easy successes in the Washington area's boom times. But now that the economy is in a slump, Gessaman and his counterparts throughout the region are being forced to seek new businesses more aggressively and to help protect the ones already in their city or county.

"We're not waiting for them to come to us," Gessaman said. "We've contacted hundreds of corporate executives in the last three weeks."

Recruiting businesses has become tougher across the region, officials said, but Washington's outer suburbs have been hit especially hard. In those areas, commercial and industrial growth had lagged behind residential development and business-recruiting efforts only recently had begun to flower.

Even Fairfax County, where the Economic Development Authority stopped recruiting outside companies in 1987 "to make sure development did not outpace roads," has changed its attitude, said Vice Chairman John E. Lynch. The Board of Supervisors directed the authority this summer to resume its marketing.

Area development officials said they have to be more creative in their marketing and are broadening their potential client lists by searching outside the United States.

The slower market and tighter budgets have prompted many counties to put a tighter focus on their advertising and marketing efforts. Rather than pitch a general atmosphere of good feelings and prosperity, they now play up specific benefits: low business taxes, a special industry or a new government center.

In Anne Arundel, Sam Minnette, economic development director, recently hired an advertising firm to change the county's marketing efforts to play up the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"Before, we would advertise to keep an image out there of Anne Arundel, sailboats and crabs," Minnette said. "Now it makes more sense to focus on a product, BWI, rather than a county."

Minnette's staff members also have changed their focus. Rather than sitting on lots of task forces that discussed child care and education, as they had in years past, the office staff now spends more time making follow-up calls after responding to inquiries from businesses, to make sure they don't miss an opportunity.

"When times get tough, we focus on being a sales office," Minnette said. "We haven't needed to {do that} in the last five years."

In Loudoun County, where office vacancy rates have topped 40 percent, Economic Development Director Terry Holzheimer has tried to make his ads stand out. The campaign begun in October's edition of Regardie's, a business journal, portrays a handful of peanuts as "what it costs to do business in Loudoun." The county also mailed dozens of tins full of peanuts to corporate executives and business editors throughout the country.

Many jurisdictions also are looking abroad for potential customers. "There's much more interest in {attracting} foreign investment nationwide," said Ted M. Levine, president of Development Counsellors International, the nation's only marketing firm that specializes in economic development. "If we're having trouble, there's still interest in Japan and Korea."

As always, the economic development officers are trying to be optimistic and get ready for the future.

"The area should be perceived as a great deal," said Prince William's Gessaman. "An objection a few years ago was that it was extremely expensive to come in."

"We are positioning ourselves for that next move," said Frederick's Don R. Date. "You can't out-guess a market. You have to say, 'Whenever you're ready, we're ready.' "