Raymond G. LaPlaca, 62, remembers a time a generation ago, when all the business leaders in Prince George's County were members of the same clubs, ran in the same political circles and socialized regularly together.
They were the "good old boys"--most, if not all, were men--who mixed golf, business and politics and shared more or less the same vision for county business development, mostly uniting on improving the education system: "Even though we were political rivals, we were always able to unite on community goals," said LaPlaca, now a lawyer in private practice.
But the county's population has grown and changed, and with it the outlook of the people who do business here. People in the key business leadership positions are no longer a small coterie of mostly white, male professionals. Instead, they come in all races and genders. And they see their mission as trying to find a way to have a combined vision that is simultaneously regional and local: focusing on issues such as improving the school system, building a well-trained work force base and bringing "quality" development in the form of high-end retail and commercial real estate into the county.
Until the 1980s, "it was a much smaller county with not as much diversity," said Andre J. Gingles, 42, an African American land-use attorney whose clients include Milton V. Peterson, the developer of the massive, $1 billion National Harbor project. "The growth in the population leads to the growth in the number of voices in the county, and it becomes a much more complicated process," he said.
Another member of the old guard, Winfield M. Kelly Jr., former county executive and Maryland secretary of state, said that "there was a litany of things that most of the people like me got involved in," whether that was the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis Club, the Lions Club or the Salvation Army. Kelly, a former chamber president and current president and chief executive of Dimensions Healthcare System in Largo, said the attraction of these groups may be diminishing. "I'm not so sure those clubs are as strong as they once were in attracting people and having the same kind of outreach," Kelly said.
Steve Horvath, president of Greenbelt-based Suburban Bank and chairman of the chamber's finance subcommittee, wants to return that power base to its former prominence while enabling it to be more in tune with the times.
Organizations such as the chamber need to reclaim their leadership through small businesses, which, unlike most of the county's large businesses, are based in the county and are closer to the grass roots, he said. "What's really happening is a sell-out" of many small, local businesses to larger corporations that aren't as invested in the community, said Horvath, who is a member of the younger generation of business leaders. Business groups such as chambers of commerce need to refocus on the political, social, educational and networking needs of small businesses to bring about local change, Horvath said, pointing out that small businesses still employ far more people than larger businesses in the county.
Richard K. "Chip" Reed, who will take over the leadership of the county chamber in 2001, said the business community needs to spell out its goals more clearly and then mobilize to achieve them.
Instead of "trying to be all things to all people, [business organizations such as the chamber should] focus on things like legislative matters" such as allowing more liquor licenses in the county or expanding business incentives and tax breaks for businesses to lure them here.
It is also businesses' responsibility to step up mentoring and helping the school system, he said.
But the biggest obstacle many in the business community face now has less to do with organization and more to do with time constraints, many business leaders say.
As in the case in almost any jurisdiction, men and women are pressed at work and at home, working more hours than ever. Civic obligations take a back seat, Reed said.
"Business is at a much faster, more intense pace," and traffic and two-income households are the norm, said Reed, who spends time with his family--his wife who works in the real estate business and two young children--when he isn't at work.
Still, many business leaders see the need to refocus what energy there is on some of the regional issues such as transportation, work-force development and technology-sector growth.
The younger generation of leaders is "still trying to articulate how it's going to go on," Gingles said. His vision now is regional, not county-based. "The issue is: How can Prince George's continue to be a vital part of economic development in the Washington region?" He believes the answer is in the pursuit of a strong work force before high-end retail.
Joseph T. Puhalla, president of the county's quasi-public Workforce Services Corp., said: "We live in a more regional economy. I think we need to look at regional leaders. And when you look at it, Prince George's County and Prince George's County job seekers will profit most from gains in the regional approach." Joseph J. James, president of the county's Economic Development Corp., said he sees a heightened sense of energy in the county's business community.
He pointed to the founding of the Prince George's High-Technology Council in November. Focusing on the needs of technology leaders through this group, he said, will help the county keep pace with the region and address work-force needs. "There's something new and exciting happening in business leadership," James said.
CAPTION: Raymond G. LaPlaca
CAPTION: Joseph J. James
CAPTION: Winfield M. Kelly Jr.