Elizabeth Casto, the longtime executive director of the Prince George's County Board of Trade, is retiring, and members of the business group she has led for 91/2 years gathered last week to celebrate her legacy.

Casto, an interior designer, joined the board in 1982, when many people thought of it as "that white south county business group," she said. Casto has sought to replace that perception with the notion that the board serves all small businesses in the county.

"Everybody is looking out for the big businesses because that is where the big bucks are," Casto said at the retirement party, held at Joan Carol Design in Clinton. "I think more attention needs to be given to the small businesses in the county."

That is where Casto focused her attention after taking the full-time position with the board in 1996. She had held various board positions, including president.

The old perceptions about the board have changed, Casto said. Along with raising money for schools, the group has sought to recognize outstanding Prince George's business owners and other residents. It has a diverse membership of about 150, although most members are based in the southern part of the county.

"As a small, independently owned business, I wanted to be part of an organization that I felt I belonged to," Casto said. "They are small enough to be a warm and friendly group."

The Board of Trade was founded in 1949 by civic, business, farm, school and church representatives to help guide and promote development in the county after World War II. It has evolved into a trade association that allows members to network, exchange services and raise money for an educational foundation. Last year, the group raised $15,000 for DuVal High School. This year it will hold an auction to raise money for Oxon Hill High School.

At the retirement party, members of the organization said they would miss Casto, who is moving to a retirement community in Dover, Del., with her husband to relax and be closer to her grandchildren.

"She has helped us organize a strong board of directors and focused on the promotion of businesses in the county," said Jeff Franklin, senior vice president of Old Line Bank and the Board of Trade's incoming president.

Jerome Countee, Prince George's Community College's liaison to the Board of Trade, said, "She really invests herself emotionally. In a business organization, that is rare. She adds a personal touch in what would otherwise be an impersonal organization."

For example, Casto met Sherron Fulton, vice president of Colding Technologies in Landover, in the hallway of their office building and invited her to become a member of the Board of Trade a few months ago. Casto also helped Fulton get initiated into the more exclusive Prince George's Business Roundtable.

"I thought it was very nice of her to embrace me," Fulton said. "A lot of times it is kind of like a closed circuit."

After Casto accepted her gifts and words of gratitude from the 50 or so members gathered, she had parting words.

"One of my goals has been to get more attendance at our functions, so I want to see you all at the next Board of Trade event on September 8th," she said.

"She never stops working," Franklin said.

Sherron Fulton of Colding Technologies, left, joined the Board of Trade after being invited by its departing executive director, Elizabeth Casto, right.