Prince George's County grew by about 70,000 residents in the 1990s, raising its estimated population to a record 800,000, surpassed in the state only by neighboring Montgomery. The newcomers helped to fill subdivisions that bloomed in the county's midsection and in the areas near Bowie and Laurel.
The new residents filled the schools to overflowing with their children, raising enrollment levels from 107,000 in 1990 to 130,000 at the turn of the century.
But even as the county grew in numbers, it saw an outflow of money, a startling reversal of recent trends. In the early '90s, the boast had been of a new majority-black county richer than when whites were predominant. But as the decade progressed, those moving in, as a group, made less than those moving out, generally to the outer counties, according to Internal Revenue Service data.
In 1996-97, the most recent years for which statistics are available, the newest residents reported median individual incomes that were $20,396--which was $3,447 less than those leaving--a disparity that also was occurring in Montgomery.
But the figures do not tell the whole story. Demographer George Grier, who has made a detailed study of the county, said they reflect the in-migration of younger households, with potentially greater long-term earning power. "They will be making more in the long run than do the [older] people moving out," Grier said.
Regardless of income, the newcomers contributed to a housing boom in Prince George's. The spread of development was welcomed by some who saw in the new upper-middle income subdivisions encouraging signs of vitality. At the same time, the growth alarmed others who sought to preserve the countryside and worried about increasing traffic on county roads.
Yet, as residential development spurted--ranking Prince George's first among all counties in new units authorized from 1996 to 1998--commercial development sputtered. The National Harbor retail and resort project on the Potomac--formerly PortAmerica, formerly the Bay of the Americas--had yet to get underway more than 15 years after its first approvals.
Proposals to build a giant retail-office center by the Greenbelt Metro station remained just that, as opponents raised new environmental concerns and major anchors withheld their commitment until some of the disputes are resolved.
The move of the Wizards and Capitals from Largo to the downtown MCI Center made their former home, the US Airways arena, a prime target for redevelopment, and a group that included Magic Johnson promised to magically transform the site into a restaurant park and entertainment complex.
Nearby, just inside the Capital Beltway, the Wilson dairy farm became Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (remember the Big Jack?), then Redskins Stadium, now FedEx Field. It lured tens of thousands to Landover, briefly Raljon, on eight Sundays a year, but other than amusement tax receipts, the tangible benefits attributable to the stadium's presence were hard to find. Meanwhile, a promised $30 million community sports center on Sheriff Road adjoining the stadium fell far behind schedule.
But outside the Beltway, Bowie boomed commercially at the intersections of Routes 50, 301 and 197. The Bowie Gateway Center saw the county's first (and so far only) Borders. Starbucks landed at last in Prince George's, opening at four locations, including one just outside the erstwhile rural county seat of Upper Marlboro.
New middle-to-upper income subdivisions--such as the Reserve, home to County Executive Wayne K. Curry, who was also involved in its development--arrived in the countryside and north and east off Enterprise Road (Route 193) and Route 301. The Indian Head corridor (Route 210) also grew, as did the traffic, much of it coming from Charles County.
The fastest-growing areas, according to Claritas, a demographic research firm, were in the Mitchellville-Largo, Glenn Dale and Laurel areas.
Road work both obstructed and paved the way for growth throughout the county, with much more to come. Sound barriers sprouted along Route 50 and the Beltway to wall off the noise inside and the scenery beyond. Arterial roads--including Routes 410, 193 and 202--were widened and lengthened.
Down the road, there promises to be more: State plans call for turning Route 301 into a controlled-access freeway from Bowie to the Potomac River bridge, with six new interchanges and 20 bridges and overpasses in Prince George's alone.
Replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is of primary concern to Beltway commuters who travel between Northern Virginia and Prince George's. Its wider impact on the county is less clear.
Meanwhile, four new stops on Metro's Branch Avenue extension slated to open soon harbor the possibility of transit-related growth, should developers choose to assemble and market properties there. A future Metro extension to Largo town center also holds out the promise of more development.
Ultimately, it may be the market that determines growth, despite the efforts of officials, planners and residents to chart the county's destiny. Their effort proceeds no less, as the County Council-appointed Commission 2000 continues its deliberations aimed at charting a new course for the 21st century. Whether or not its work will bear fruit will be answered in time.
CAPTION: State plans call for turning Route 301, above, into a controlled-access freeway from Bowie to the Potomac River bridge.