Landover Mall's neon blue and white sign, squatting on a grassy hill off Interstate 95, looks like a remnant from the '70s.

In fact, it is.

Things haven't changed much inside the 27-year-old mall, either--except for the growing number of empty stores. The shopping center is clean, but the dark tiles inside are scuffed, the lighting is dim and the number of shoppers is small even on weekends.

"The people who live in and around the county and those who have moved in feel they're entitled to a level of service that Landover Mall does not provide," said County Council member Marvin F. Wilson (D-Glenarden).

Once one of the most prestigious shopping venues in the Washington area, Landover Mall is now a symbol of the county's struggle to attract popular retailers and restaurants.

Despite the presence of the wealthiest, majority black community in the country, Prince George's residents complain that they frequently shop outside the county because existing stores don't carry much designer clothing. And despite interest in the county by merchants such as Target and Starbucks, major upscale retailers such as Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom remain elusive. Developers say they are working to draw high-quality retail to the county, but there have been no major announcements.

A variety of factors are blamed for the absence of high-end retailers in Prince George's County, but one of the major problems, said developers, retailers and commercial real estate brokers, is Landover Mall. Last year, its vacancy rate of 30 percent was the highest among major malls in the Washington area. This was at a time when shoppers were pulling out their wallets for just about anything.

Retailers complain that the mall looks dated because it has not been renovated recently. Meanwhile, Landover's owner, Lerner Corp., built the new Dulles Town Center in Loudoun County at a cost of more than $100 million.

"I think it's unfortunate that [owner Theodore Lerner] won't look or won't take a serious look at the improvements the county is making," Wilson said. "If he is making profits without making improvements, maybe that's a position he wants to be in." It's unclear whether Bethesda-based Lerner has any plans for Landover Mall. Despite several attempts to reach company executives, they either did not return phone calls or said they were unable to comment. Arthur Fuccillo, who is in charge of new development for Lerner, said he was not in a position to answer questions about the shopping center.

In the meantime, the mall's condition is so poor that it may be hurting retail recruiting efforts, according to developers, real estate brokers and county officials. That's because chains considering the Washington area often look at the mall as an indication of how their stores will perform in the county.

"It's definitely an issue that comes up when we talk to a retailer," said Joseph James, the county's economic development director.

When brokers take retail executives on a tour of the Washington area, the trip through Prince George's County often is short.

"It's unfortunate," said Peter Framson, a real estate broker and principal with Trammell Crow Co. in McLean. "You can show them Annapolis Mall, but it's not in Prince George's County. You can show them St. Charles Town Center, but it's not in Prince George's County."

How Landover Mall Fell Off the Retail Map

To understand how far Landover Mall has fallen, consider this: In the early '70s, it was feared by Tysons Corner merchants who believed the upstart shopping center would swipe their sales.

At its grand opening, Landover Mall had potted palms, water fountains and popular retailers such as Garfinckel's and Woodward & Lothrop. The 1.3 million-square-foot shopping center drew so many customers that traffic jams formed on nearby roads.

It soon became clear that Landover Mall posed no threat to Tysons. By the mid-1980s, crime inside Landover Mall and drug problems in nearby low-income housing developments had made shoppers and retailers nervous, according to county officials and newspaper reports. The mall lost anchors when Garfinckel's and Woodies went out of business this decade.

J.C. Penney took the Woodies spot, but the Garfinckel's space has been empty since the early 1990s. Small stores--such as SportsPage, Jeans West and soon, the Cavalier men's apparel shop--also have departed. They often are replaced with stores with unfamiliar names or nothing at all.

Even as the neighborhoods have improved and the county's wealth has risen, the mall can't seem to shake its old image. The vacant stores, dressed up with artwork and advertisements, are a reminder that perceptions continue to haunt the mall.

Many Retailers Aren't Interested

In the past 20 years, Prince George's County has gone from a white blue-collar community to an up-and-coming middle-class majority black community. The average household income in Prince George's County ranks higher than state and national averages. Last year, it rose to an estimated $61,900, according to the research firm Claritas Inc.

The outside-the-Beltway section of Prince George's County has more residents and higher household incomes than Howard County to the north, as well as Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia. Millionaires now have homes in many Prince George's communities, most notably Mitchellville.

Despite these trends, a growing number of residents, developers and county officials say the number and quality of retailers does not match the county's demographics. And some say there are hints of racial discrimination in many retailers' decisions, whether it's bypassing the county or simply offering lesser merchandise.

"I think we've known for some time that there is what appears to be substantial economic red-lining taking place in the retail community," said County Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton). "The kind of shopping opportunities our residents want--Macy's and Nordstrom--have refused to locate in Prince George's County. . . . My own belief is that it has to do with the fact that the majority of residents in Prince George's County are African American."

Merchants say there's no race issue. Rather, they follow the money and opportunities. And right now, they say, there may be an abundance of well-heeled residents, but no one has built a high-end mall.

"It there is no major upscale mall, maybe there's no place to go," said Carol Sanger, a spokeswoman for Federated Department Stores Inc., which owns Bloomingdale's and Macy's. "Maybe it's a question for the developer."

Nordstrom spokeswoman Brooke White said the upscale retailer has looked "from time to time" at Prince George's County. Although she declined to discuss the county's assets and drawbacks, she added that Nordstrom typically looks first for a competitive mix of retailers or a suitable shopping center development in the works.

White points out that Nordstrom has built department stores in ethnically diverse markets such as Atlanta, Norfolk, Dallas and Indianapolis.

"We want to be where the business is to be had, and it has nothing to do with race," White said.

Real estate brokers and urban experts provide yet another explanation for the retailers' reluctance: The county suffers by sharing the same metropolitan area with two very wealthy neighbors, Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

Retailers who come to the Washington area, brokers said, are much more likely to look first at Fairfax, where the average household income is $96,200, and then at Montgomery, with an average $91,400 household income.

Prince George's County officials also share some blame for the lack of shopping options, according to U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat who represents the county. Wynn accused the county of making poor zoning decisions that have encouraged low-end residential development--something upscale retailers avoid.

"If you allow people to build the cheapest possible town houses and apartments and then you wonder why you don't have Nordstrom, it doesn't make sense," Wynn said. "Race is a significant issue, but it's not the only issue."

Real Estate Questions Itself About Race

Even the real estate development industry is beginning to question itself.

Last year, Baltimore developer David Cordish, who is planning a large shopping center at the site of US Airways Arena near Landover, accused real estate brokers, developers and retailers of "stupid discrimination."

The race issue is alive and well, yet it is "always unspoken," said Dana Stebbins, a lawyer who represents a proposed mall at the Greenbelt Metro station. "There's always an undercurrent about Prince's George's County that is based on a misconception about the county's race and income."

Even retailers that already have stores inside the county have been accused of showing disrespect to residents.

The J.C. Penney department store at Landover Mall recently became an outlet because it felt sales would rise by carrying discounted items. The Hecht's store has water-stained ceilings and escalators painted yellow. It has so few designer clothes that even its salespeople seem weary of explaining the slim pickings.

Hecht's spokeswoman Nancy Chistolini said the company's department stores sell what their residents are buying. And if local customers don't buy designer fashions, then the store can't stock it.

"We would love to have Liz [Claiborne] in that store, if it would sell for us," she said.

Chistolini noted that Hecht's also will be investing in a new department store at a planned shopping center in Bowie, a growing part of the county. The store is expected to open in the fall of 2000.

For now, though, the county's retailers are grappling with complaints from customers, who say they're treated better in the far-out suburbs than they are at home.

At the Montgomery Ward store at Capital Plaza in Hyattsville, shopper Denise Coleman said she was shocked to realize that she could not return new lingerie, with the tags still attached. But other Montgomery Ward stores, she said, had no such policy.

Jim Richardson, manager of the Montgomery Ward store, said his store does not have a stricter policy and that the saleswoman should have taken back the merchandise.

With better shopping in the surrounding counties, many Prince George's residents say they are taking their dollars elsewhere. "I have to go to Pentagon City or the Rockville area to buy nice clothes," said Marcus Getachew, a computer programmer who lives and works in Lanham. "I'm sick of it. . . . I've asked to be transferred to Reston."

Even retailers grouse about the state of retailing. They say the owners of many aging shopping centers don't seem interested in the deteriorating condition of their malls. At Landover Mall, retailers say, the center's management rarely stops by and doesn't hold mall retail meetings.

The manager of the Sears store, which underwent a $5 million renovation about five years ago, said the mall's owner and many stores seem to have given up on the property.

"Certainly we're not happy with this mall by any stretch of the imagination," manager Frank Morrow said. "We didn't spend less on this store, as many other people have done in this mall. We're keeping this store as bright and aggressive as any Sears store on the East Coast. We don't see the same thing happening in this mall."

Pressure to Renovate Older Centers

County officials hope several planned shopping centers and the entrance of a few big-box retailers will put pressure on the owner to renovate Landover Mall and other troubled centers such as Iverson Mall and New Carrollton Mall.

A new breed of developers is beginning to get more aggressive about bringing more retailers, particularly upscale merchants, to Prince George's County. The Rappaport Cos., of Vienna, recently spent about $10 million renovating the Penn Mar Shopping Center in Forestville, bringing in Starbucks and Marshall's.

Those retail chains, along with recent entries such as Target and Home Depot, say they've seen more people and more money moving into the county.

"Green is the color we're interested in," said Jerry Thorpe, a marketing director with Starbucks, which has opened stores in Greenbelt, Laurel, Bowie and Forestville. "We don't know why [other retailers] aren't there."

More retailers are on the way. Developer Simon Property Group will build an open-air shopping center in Bowie with Hecht's and Sears as anchors. And Baltimore developer Cordish Co. wants to knock down the old US Airways Arena and build an entertainment and retail center that will include Magic Johnson Theatres and popular retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Old Navy.

In September, a partnership headed by Bethesda-based Clark Realty Co. and Petrie Deirman Kughn of McLean hope to file detailed site plans for a mall or open-air shopping center adjacent to the Greenbelt Metro station.

The developers want to recruit anchor department stores like Macy's and Nordstrom as well as entertainment retailers like Dave & Buster's, lawyer Stebbins said. They hope to make the center the retail mecca that residents long have desired--and what Landover Mall used to be.

Prince George's Compared to Neighbors

County area Population Average household income

Washington area 3,933,400 $78,700

Prince George's 782,100 61,900

Inside the Beltway* 451,400 52,900

Outside the Beltway* 323,000 76,400

District of Columbia 520,400 65,700

Anne Arundel 473,800 66,600

Charles 116,500 65,300

Frederick 186,300 60,800

Howard 233,600 74,300

Montgomery 829,600 91,400

Fairfax 953,900 96,200

Arlington 176,300 77,800

Loudoun 135,500 70,300

Prince William 300,000 66,300

Alexandria 119,000 76,000

*Estimates

SOURCE: Claritas Inc., 1998