Prince George's County has waited decades for high-end retailers, and this day brings no relief. Marc Guth, a representative for the Cheesecake Factory Inc., has agreed to hear the county's sales pitch at a major shopping center convention here, but he is running 10 minutes late, then 15, then 20.
He finally arrives but has no time to sit down.
A rushed County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) hurries into his arguments, promoting "four to five really great opportunities" for an upscale restaurant in Prince George's.
"Sorry," Guth said after a few minutes and no promises. "I have to run."
For retail-starved Prince George's County, it has come to this. Passed over by the same luxury stores and white-tablecloth restaurants that have cropped up in suburbs across the region, county leaders are making an aggressive -- and for Johnson, a personal -- bid for high-end shopping, including a three-day trip to a retail industry trade show here.
It is a frustrating exercise, with the county's highest-ranking official scrambling to win five-minute meetings with restaurant executives and repeating the case for Prince George's in meetings with dozens of brokers and developers who are weighing proposals from throughout the country.
Guth, a location scout for a chain that has placed 92 restaurants in such places as Chevy Chase Pavilion and Beverly Hills' Golden Triangle, met with county leaders at the request of a "friend of a friend," he said, adding that he still does not know much about the area. To successfully lure the chain -- or any other high-end retailer -- Prince George's County will have to best not only the rest of the region but thousands of communities across the country. Guth's meeting schedule for the trade show, crowded with politicians, planners and developers eager to attract the restaurant, was booked solid 30 days ago.
Still, there are signs that momentum is building in Prince George's. Westfield Group, which operates upscale malls in Annapolis and Bethesda, said it is considering building a new center in the county, in what would be a major coup. And representatives for Nordstrom Inc., a luxury department store chain high on the county's wish list, met with the officials at the trade show.
"Prince George's appears to be underserved" by retail, said Katy Dickey, a spokeswoman for Westfield. She said the company is "looking at [the county] closely" for a new shopping center.
The timing is crucial. More than 3 million square feet of new retail are planned for the county, the equivalent of Tysons Corner Center and Tysons Galleria combined. The question, retail brokers and industry experts say, is whether the county can persuade upscale stores and restaurants to fill it.
"That market should not be closed off to us," Johnson said last week as he walked the floor of the International Council of Shopping Centers' annual convention, where mall developers routinely negotiate deals to put retail gems like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue in malls around the country.
At stake is not just dollars, but the county's self-image.
Prince George's presents a relatively rare dynamic for retailers: a concentrated community of wealthy blacks. The county's population is 63 percent black, and its median household income is $55,256, according to the 2000 Census. Among more than 3,000 counties, that ranks 120th in the nation.
But it has had little success attracting high-end retail. The issue has become a persistent sore point for residents and businesses, who have initiated letter-writing campaigns and launched Web sites to cajole favored franchises to take the county seriously.
When it comes to department stores, for example, Prince George's County trails far behind the rest of the region. It has 1.97 square feet of department store space per household, compared with 4.7 in Anne Arundel, 5.1 in Montgomery and 5.2 in Howard, according to a report prepared by McComb Group Ltd., a retail consulting firm.
And while all three of those neighboring counties have upscale department stores such as Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor, Prince George's has only Hecht's. As a result, nearly a quarter of county residents shopped at department stores outside of Prince George's in 2004, according to Scarborough Research, which studies shopping patterns.
The bulk of the county's retail consists of community shopping centers built decades ago and filled with grocery stores, take-out restaurants, dollar stores and discounters.
"We have no problem attracting the big boxes," Johnson said, referring to the proliferation of Home Depot and Target stores in the county.
The same can be said for mid-priced restaurants. A handful of new family restaurants have opened in the county in the past year, including Red Star Tavern and Ruby Tuesday's, but what the county wants is pricier fare, such as Chinese restaurant P. F. Chang's, seafood chain McCormick & Schmick's and steakhouse Ruth's Chris.
Often, county residents have simplified the reason retailers have ignored Prince George's to one issue: race. In demographic studies and presentations, county officials have argued its income, educational attainment and housing stock merit better shopping options.
As he strolled a convention floor where he was one of the few black people, Johnson called race "the unstated issue" in Prince George's quest for retail.
Retail brokers and developers say the problem is more complex.
Peter Framson, principal of Green Light Retail, a Bethesda-based retail brokerage, said retailers are eager to build in the county's better-off communities -- notably Bowie and Laurel -- but are stymied by a shortage of commercially zoned land. As for the rest of the county, high-end retailers "do not want to go there for one reason -- demographics. Not enough people making enough money," he said.
Race, he said, "is just not an issue."
In the regional fight for retailers, Prince George's has often been measured against Montgomery and Fairfax counties, but their median incomes are among the highest in the country.
Brokers also say the county is not always an easy place to develop a retail center.
"It is a very long, arduous process to get projects approved in the county, and it can have a dampening effect," said Richard Lake, a principal at Madison Retail Group, which is working on a development in Hyattsville called University Town Center. "That is a real problem. Sometimes retailers just lose their patience and move on."
Which is why Johnson came to Las Vegas. Convinced that the only way to turn the retail tide was to make a personal plea, the county executive decided to lead a small delegation of county leaders to the shopping centers convention, the mall industry's biggest dealmaking event.
Johnson cannot close a retail deal, but he can speed up the development process, offer his support to projects and cheerlead for retailers. During the convention, Johnson met with 27 brokers and developers and pointed them to several major projects under development in the county.
* Karington, a $900 million planned community in Bowie, will be centered on 300,000 square feet of retail that its developers hope will be managed and constructed by Westfield.
* National Harbor, the $2 billion hotel, office, restaurant and entertainment complex along the Potomac River in Fort Washington, will include 1 million square feet of retail, dining, and entertainment.
* Konterra, a 2,200-acre mixed-use development that touches parts of Beltsville and Laurel, will feature a regional mall anchored by national department stores.
* Woodmore Towne Center, which is being developed on 245 acres in Landover, will include a complex of homes, offices and moderate-to high-end furniture, clothing and specialty retailers.
County officials, developers and some retail brokers say that some of those projects could yield the county's elusive prize -- an upscale department store.
But if Johnson's experience in Las Vegas is any guide, high-end retail will not happen overnight. Retail brokers are slow to sign deals. They carefully scour data on incomes, education levels and population density. And they are wary of anything new -- which, for many, means Prince George's.
"I know nothing about" the sites the county is promoting, said Guth, the Cheesecake Factory representative.
But Johnson is undeterred. Upscale retail, he says, is key to the county's future. "When our citizens have the same shopping opportunities as other communities, then they feel good about where they live."
And so he will continue to wait.
"We are focusing on the top," Johnson said during one of his brief meetings with a retail broker in Las Vegas. "I would love to hold a press conference and introduce you as the person who brought high-end retail," he said. "You would be a hero."
Barbaro reported from Las Vegas and Williams from Washington.