In the past few years, business and political leaders in Prince George's County have begun working together to improve the marketability of this vast, relatively undeveloped county. And it's working: the pace of development, particularly of high-quality office and research and development parks, is accelerating, making the county more attractive to new companies every month.

But there are some watching this process who believe the increasing rate of development in the county has more to do with natural "laws" of development than with specific changes in the county government to speed the approval process for desired developments.

"Traditionally, development occurs outward from a metropolitan center along major arterial routes," said Christopher Fuchs, a doctoral student with the University of Maryland's Geography Department who has just completed a study of the "location-decision processes" for Washington's business community over the past two years.

"If you examine development in Washington you will see that during the '60s and '70s it occurred primarily in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, out Route 270, Route 7 and Route 50," said Fuchs. "Now, there's a shortage of sites in those areas and they are badly congested with traffic. Prince George's, being relatively close in, has no congestion and cheaper land prices, so it will naturally develop over the next decade."

According to Fuchs, a developer would have to go as far out as Germantown in Maryland or eastern Loudoun County in Virginia to find land as inexpensive as can be found in areas of Prince George's County that are within 15 minutes of downtown Washington.

Developers working in Prince George's agree with Fuchs.

"The Prince George's sector of the Washington market is grossly underdeveloped," said Randall D. MacCuaig, manager of Washington development and operations for McCormick and Co., the spice company from Baltimore, which is starting construction of a 230-acre office park at the intersection of Route 495 and Landover Road. "Prince George's has great accessibility, to Washington and to two airports, it has passenger and freight rail running right through the middle of it and lower land prices. What more could you ask for?"

Robert Depew, president of Depew and Associates, came to Prince George's with one of the first companies to build an office park in the county and he has stayed with that project as manager and developer of the Washington Business Park, a 250-acre office park at the intersection of Route 50 and Route 495.

"The land in Fairfax and Montgomery counties is so expensive now that you have to build a number of stories for it to be worthwhile," said Depew. "In Prince George's, you can still afford to build one-story research and development buildings, and we are beginning to attract more of that market."

The Washington Business Park, started eight years ago, is now half completed with 1.5 million square feet of office and research and development space. Depew admitted that the Route 495 and Route 50 intersection is one of the "hot spots" of development now, but he predicted that, within the next decade, development would also take off along the Beltway's southern loop through the county.

"From Route 50 north along the Beltway, most of the land is either developed or already controlled by developers, but along the southern loop, there is still a lot of land available, even at major intersections," said Depew. "Unquestionably, over the next decade, you will see a lot of activity down there."

Tom Malone, general manager for real estate operations with the Prudential Insurance Co. of America, said his firm recently decided to get into Prince George's partly to diversify their investments in the Washington area but also because the area was still a bargain.

"If you look at Prince George's without the local prejudices, you wonder why it's not more developed," said Malone. "It has highway and Metrorail access, convenience and proximity to airports, and a varied labor force." Prudential is developing a 37-acre park called the Golden Triangle at the intersection of Route 495 and Kenilworth Avenue. The park, when built, will have 900,000 square feet of office space, a restaurant and other support services.

It is precisely Prince George's image as a "blue-collar" community that Malone believes has hampered development in the past. However he and some other developers say that the availability of unskilled and blue-collar workers in Prince George's is now being marketed as an attractive asset.

"Prince George's is uniquely positioned to provide a range of labor resources," said Gordon Hubley, director of site and location assistance for the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. "We have engineers, mathematicians and computer technicians and also people who can work on a production or assembly line."

Litton Industries, a high-technology firm that recently decided to expand their facilities in the College Park area by 50 percent instead of moving the company's operations out of the county, employs nearly 800 blue-collar, assembly-line personel, most of whom live in Prince George's.

James Harmon, Litton's vice president for industrial relations, said that while 58 percent of the firm's employes come from the county, the majority of the higher-skilled workers--particularly engineers--come from outside the county. The company's location near the Beltway, however, makes it accessible to professionals that live elsewhere.

Although business executives agree in general that the county's image is improving, some say that in the areas of demographics and housing, the changes are not coming as quickly.

"There's a fine supply of upper-end housing in the county for company executives and a fine supply of blue-collar and non-skilled workers," said one company official, who asked not to be identified. "But there's not much in between, either in middle-level professionals or places for them to live. That remains one of Prince George's main problems."

Many of the developers working in the county agree that the county's accessibility to Washington has been the prime reason for the recent boom, but MacCuaig, of McCormick Properties, said he believes that the support from the county government was also important to his company's decision to move there.

"There is a very pro-business oriented government here, and that has been very helpful," said MacCuaig. "We are anticipating building four to five million square feet of office space, plus a 300-room hotel, in the next 10 to 15 years and we believe the county offers a lot of potential for future development."

Prince George's County facilitates the zoning and site plan approval process for priority projects, a system that many of the county's developers praise.

"In our case everything has worked with incredible efficiency," said Harmon of Litton Industries. "All of the people involved in all levels of county government gave us excellent service and it all took less time than we had hoped."

"It's an effective system," said Depew, who said he has had different projects in some stage of the approval process for most of the past decade. "It also looks good."

The county has also recently had a 1,281 acre parcel at the intersection of Route 214 and 301--near Upper Marlboro--designated a foreign trade zone. Businesses locating within the zone will be able to import, store and assemble foreign goods without having to pay duty on them until they leave the trade zone. There is already one foreign-owned textile manufacturing firm in the trade zone and county officials say they believe more will be locating there shortly.

Other developments that should spur development in the county are the University of Maryland Science and Technology Center in the middle of the county and the 440-acre Bay of the Americas project, recently approved by the Prince George's County Council for the Oxon Hill area.

"The Bay of the Americas should create a turning point for the southern part of the county," said Depew. "We'll probably see a lot of development in that area sparked by that project. Then, with the development happening in Laurel and along the I-95 corridor in the north, it should really round out the county."