THE SPANKING-NEW shopping centers of early suburbia -- where motorists used to flock for staple-gathering and entertainment -- are hitting retirement age, and showing it. In more than a few of these pioneer pull-in plazas, the sparkle of retail activity has turned into the flicker of frail neon signs clinging to flaked-paint walls of struggling or empty shops. The challenge is to block the blight of time before these centers succumb to crime, torpor and abandonment.

This week, Prince George's County won some special federal help that should lift the faces as well as business activities of four tired commercial sites -- changes that in turn can stimulate fresh commercial investment and more jobs. The sites: Eastover Shopping Center, the Shoppers Food Warehouse at Oxon Hill Plaza, Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville -- where a new Sears store is planned -- and the Safeway Warehouse and Distribution Center.

The aid comes in the form of an $11 million federal loan and grant package -- a $1 million grant and $10 million in loan guarantees to stimulate $43 million in private investment in renovations.

Similar renovation programs elsewhere in the region have helped revive aging commercial areas. In Northern Virginia, some leaders worked years ago to drum up money for renovation. Baileys Crossroads in Fairfax, Annandale and various tired spots along Route 1 came to life long before "smart growth" became the buzz-label for resuscitating old areas. The idea is to make new use of areas that don't need expensive new roads, water and sewer hookups or schools.

For Prince George's, the message of such improvements could turn into a powerful notice to retailers that the county is ready to stake a fresh claim as a solid, attractive place to do new business.