"It's like building a city," said Milton Peterson, the developer of National Harbor, which is being built along the Potomac River in Prince George's County. "We can't foul it up."

Let the church say, "Amen!"

National Harbor is the largest private investment in the history of Maryland. In essence, it's a $2 billion wager that carries enormous risk. Much of the county's economic future is at stake, along with Peterson's reputation and money.

Peterson has said that National Harbor will be his version of Las Ramblas, the grand pedestrian walkway near Barcelona's port district. But Barcelona is Spain's second-largest city. It hosted the 1992 Olympics, and its port is one of the most important in Europe.

Along Las Ramblas, a visitor encounters artists, a huge opera house, fabulous food, a red-light district and an open-air pet market. Does this sound like Prince George's County?

Las Ramblas pulsates because of Barcelona and its thousand-year history. No such chronicle exists for National Harbor. And therein lies the risk.

Peterson has a blank canvas. National Harbor's character and financial success will be defined and determined exclusively by his choices. Here history will be not his adjunct but his judge.

Peterson built projects all over the region, but mostly in Northern Virginia. His office park, residential and mixed-use projects have been standard suburban fare -- office buildings off major highways, apartments, condos, townhouses, single-family homes and maybe a church or two. His big-box stores, gas stations and chain restaurants have come accompanied by the inevitable giant slap of a parking lot.

Peterson has built a lot of these cookie-cutter developments, and not much distinguishes one from another. That is until recently. Peterson's work in the revitalized area of downtown Silver Spring has residents and businesses speaking in glowing terms. And his National Harbor model gives reassuring evidence that the prime riverfront property just might be in the right hands. The elaborate 8-by-10-foot model generates excitement.

But if National Harbor is to become a favored destination, like San Francisco's North Beach or Miami Beach's South Beach, it will have to generate a large base of loyal local regulars. It also will need out-of towners who are willing to make a special trip there.

People make special trips because they enjoy the ambience and unique qualities of an area. Toward that end, National Harbor should forgo strip mall cuisine. If we are what we eat, National Harbor will be what it serves. Forget Starbucks and ESPN Zone, and think San Francisco's Cafe Trieste and our own Vienna Inn.

Neighborhood vitality and verve can be as long-lived as New York's Greenwich Village or as newly minted as Richmond's Carytown. These places flourish because their status as celebrated destinations helps recruit artisans, artists and small businesses. These in turn plant roots, take risks and build the kinds of enterprises that further enrich the physical setting.

National Harbor can do no less. Chain stores won't fill its streets, but an outstanding assortment of accomplished small businesses might. At the same time, since National Harbor will be a significant part of Prince George's County's larger prosperity, it is not hard to imagine that big stores will want to locate nearby, and that would be just fine.

National Harbor is the financial breakout that Prince George's has long sought. It can become a stunning oasis along the banks of the Potomac, adding considerably to the county's economy as well as to its emerging character. The burden of making that happen, however, falls squarely on the shoulders of Milton Peterson.

If he thinks small while imagining big, he won't "foul it up" and his beautiful Las Ramblas of the spirit will emerge and thrive.

To that prospect, let the church say, "Amen!"