Charles County is on the verge of attracting at least one significant new business, elected commissioners told an audience of business leaders last week.

Confidential negotiations are underway and are being led by the appointed Economic Development Commission, which should be able to make an announcement within six weeks or two months, Commissioner Robert Fuller (D-St. Charles) said.

"I think you'll be very pleased," Fuller told an audience of about 80 people on Wednesday, as the commissioners participated in the Chamber of Commerce's annual State of the County forum. The EDC has been "quite successful," Fuller said.

The five commissioners answered questions during the session at Middleton Hall in eastern Waldorf. Topics included plans for highway improvements in the Waldorf area, a proposal to ban construction of small houses and the financial plight of the county's only hospital.

Fuller's reply came in response to a question about the role of the Economic Development Commission, which was revived in 1997 after several years of inactivity.

Attracting new businesses has emerged as an economic and political issue, in part because of widespread drops in home values that consultants attributed to the county's lack of high-paying jobs.

Last month, the EDC announced a proposal to build a $300 million electricity generating plant in eastern Waldorf, a facility that would bring several hundred temporary construction jobs and 35 permanent positions.

EDC Executive Director Aubrey Edwards said he could not provide details of the ongoing negotiations to which Fuller referred.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sally Jameson said it appeared the EDC is working on several proposals.

"Now that they've been up and running for several years, you're going to see some of their efforts finally come to fruition," Jameson said. "It takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to get anything going. When you're talking about bringing a major business concern to the county, they're not going to do that without a tremendous amount of research."

Commissioners also said on Wednesday that it appears that whatever decision is made about a Route 301 bypass of Waldorf, it is clear the current roadway will need improvements. Some bypass opponents hold out improvements as an alternative.

A state-sponsored study group chose a bypass in 1995 as a way to alleviate congestion as traffic grows. Critics say a bypass would needlessly devour countryside and extend suburban sprawl. The issue remains undecided while a county-formed study group examines alternatives.

One question at Wednesday's forum assumed a bypass would be built in seven to 12 years.

"If it's going to happen, I assume it's going to happen faster than that because the need [to ease traffic congestion] is already there," said Board of Commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large). But, he added, "Clearly, regardless of the option selected, [Route] 301 will have to be upgraded."

Levy said Civista Health Inc. and its hospital, the Civista Medical Center in La Plata, will likely work through financial problems, but will need 12 to 18 months to do so.

Hospital executives asked the county for as much as $10 million in loans last month, saying they faced severe billing problems and heavy debt.

Levy said the financial travails have stalled talks about forming a consortium between Civista and Southern Maryland's other two hospitals. The hospital has been in discussions with the other hospitals, Levy said, but "you only fight one alligator at a time."

Commissioners were asked the status of their proposal to ban construction of homes smaller than 1,650 square feet. The appointed Planning Commission is to take up the measure tomorrow. It casts an advisory vote before the issue returns to elected commissioners for a final decision.

The proposal originated with elected commissioners.

"I wanted to begin a dialogue which at some point dealt not only with the size of the home [but] also what the neighborhood will look like 25 or 30 years from now," Fuller said. "I can show you some examples of dwellings 10 to 15 years old that already look like they're falling down."

Commissioner Marland Deen (R-Waldorf) indicated discomfort with the proposed ban on construction of small houses, although he joined in the commissioners' unanimous vote on Oct. 5 to send the measure to the Planning Commission.

"I haven't been able to make the connection between square footage of single-family homes and sustainability of the community," Deen said.

Levy said he is intent upon changing patterns of growth.

"I am absolutely convinced we cannot continue to do what we've been doing," Levy said.

He pointed to the nearby neighborhoods of St. Charles, which have been designated a high-crime Hot Spot, a label that attracts state funding for focused law enforcement efforts.

"Tell me what is sustainable about that? Nothing," Levy said. "Yet you honestly think this Board of Commissioners is going to sit here and do nothing? Get serious. . . . We have some real challenges in this county. And we're not finished."