With two major rivers, scores of charming tidal inlets and creeks and a location just 18 miles from the nation's capital, Charles County would seem to be a natural for vibrant waterfront development.

But farms, forests and swamps occupy more than 90 percent of the county's 183 miles of tidal shoreline. And the few settlements on the Potomac and Patuxent rivers are small and sleepy.

County leaders want to bring more economic life to the waterfront. At a public forum on Wednesday, they asked citizens for ideas. Tourism-centered facilities in Indian Head emerged as a leading suggestion.

"We're trying to increase the tax base" by finding new uses for the waterfront, said Aubrey H. Edwards, executive director of county government's Economic Development Commission. "What we hope to do is . . . to attract private investment."

Roughly four dozen people attended the meeting at the Jaycees Community Center in Waldorf, said Evie Hungerford, an Indian Head advertising executive who chairs a waterfront task force formed by the Economic Development Commission.

Those attending placed red stickers on a map of the county to indicate where waterfront development should take place. Red blossomed to cover Indian Head, with lesser blooms on Cobb Island, in the county's south, and Benedict, on the east side of the county, Hungerford said.

Meeting participants chose a waterfront resort and conference center as their preferred projects, Hungerford said.

She said participants also want to develop a village similar to Occoquan, a town on the Occoquan River in Prince William County, which lies across the Potomac from Charles County. Occoquan's waterfront has remained active with an emphasis on crafts shops and artisans, she said.

Other ideas, Hungerford said, include developing waterfront historic sites, such as the Mount Aventine manor and the General Smallwood home; starting aquaculture facilities, which entail raising fish and other creatures for profit; and building "a really nice, upscale retirement community."

Officials in Indian Head, hit recently by several business closings, welcomed the identification of their community as a possible development site.

The town has the Potomac on one side and Mattawoman Creek on the other. Development there would agree with the state's "Smart Growth" policies, which seek to locate new growth near existing municipalities and water and sewer service.

"We fit. Everything fits," said Indian Head Mayor Warren Bowie. "It was made for us."

The county's Edwards, speaking after the meeting, declined to predict what the task force would recommend. He said public input is "part of the equation" but not the determining factor.

"If we can't attract private investment to a project, it's not a project. Simple as that," Edwards said. The task force will help decide what public investment could spark further economic expansion.

Charles County could benefit from increasing interest in waterfront tourism and recreation, said Anirban Basu, director of applied economics at RESI, a regional studies institute that is part of Towson University.

The trend is gathering force as the American population becomes older, richer and more interested in second homes or retirement homes, Basu said. "There is no reason to believe Southern Maryland would not be attractive" to such customers, he said.

CAPTION: Mattingly Park's waterfront near Indian Head, above, is a haven for waterfowl. Farms, forests and swamps occupy more than 90 percent of Charles County's 183 miles of tidal shoreline.