Oxon Hill High School band director and music teacher Walter Harley introduces the band as it kicks off the groundbreaking for Tanger Outlets at the National Harbor. Harley, a Washington Post 2012 Agnes Meyers Teacher of the Year, said the band, has performed at several major events at the National Harbor. (Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery/For The Washington Post)

There will be outlets for Gap, Chico’s, White House/Black Market, Brooks Brothers and Calvin Klein among the 80-plus stores scheduled to open at the National Harbor in time for the 2013 Christmas shopping season.

“I’m reminded of the song of the great Etta James: ‘At Last,’ ” county council member Obie Paterson (D-District 8) told a crowd that attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the outlets Thursday.

Scores of county residents and workers crowded in and around a large white tent for the official groundbreaking. The nationally acclaimed Oxon Hill High School marching band kick-started the celebration with popular tunes, and Radio One personality Sheila Stewart served as host.

 “Everybody asked, ‘Why do I have to go to Annapolis to go shopping? Why do we have to go to Virginia to do our shopping?’ Those days will be gone,” said Maryland State Delegate Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s). His wife and mother-in-law had been among those chiding him for the lack of shopping venues comparable to those in other middle- and upper-income jurisdictions, he said.

Prince George’s, the wealthiest and best-educated majority African American county in the country, for many years has faced obstacles to economic development. Some have cited economic racism, government corruption and street-level crime among barriers to progress. But development of the National Harbor, which opened in 2008, has cut a path for more growth.

 “This right here is what’s going to grow Prince George’s County, and what’s going to grow the state,” said County Executive Rushern Baker III. “Now all we need is a casino,” he chuckled. “Right over there.” The audience laughed with him.

Building the new outlet mall will create 600 construction jobs and lead to 1,000-plus jobs in retail management and sales, Baker said. The outlet, to be operated by Tanger Factory Outlet Centers, a Greensboro, N.C.-based company that operates 43 malls across the country, is projected to generate $6.5 million a year in sales tax receipts to be used for schools, roads and health care for residents.

Developer Milt Peterson, chairman of Peterson Construction Co., which will have 50 percent ownership of the outlet mall, was also beaming. His vision for a thriving economic center on the Prince George’s side of the Potomac is coming into focus with the recent voter approval for a casino, and with the new shopping outlet. He shared his dream of shuttle buses carrying visitors from the county, the state, the nation and “from around the globe” to restaurants and other attractions at the harbor. “Everybody doesn’t like to gamble, but everybody likes to shop,” he joked.

Across the road from the celebration, two residents held protest signs reading “Invest in Oxon Hill.” Some in the neighborhoods near the harbor have said they felt left behind. They have pointed to run-down strip malls further down Oxon Hill Road as proof that the train forward has not picked up everyone. But Zeno W. St. Cyr, a community activist participating in the ceremony, welcomed the harbor’s newest project heartily.

“We’ve been craving quality development and improved retail experience in Prince George’s County, particularly southern Prince George’s County,” said St. Cyr, co-founder of the Greater Southern County Coalition for Absolute Progress.

With no shame, I grabbed two of the gold souvenir tote bags placed on the chairs. I plan to use them when my mother-in-law and I go shopping at the new outlets there. The sales taxes from our purchases will help maintain and build the county’s schools and infrastructure. Furthermore, based on what I was told by the Oxon Hill band director, our support of the harbor businesses will indirectly benefit students, too.

 “Because we have a partnership with the harbor, many of our students will be able to get internships here,” said Walter Harley, an Oxon Hill High band director and music teacher. For years, the band has been performing at major events at the harbor, which has “adopted” the school and offered financial assistance. The harbor’s McCormick and Schmidt has held fundraisers for the band. “I don’t sell cookies and pies. And I don’t sell M&M’s and pizza,” Harley joked, adding that students are learning new fundraising and career options as they participate in events and invite business owners to their school for talks.

 “You can begin to see the entire strategy … National Harbor is at the center of our tourism, entertainment and hospitality industries,” Prince George’s County Council member Mel Franklin (D-District 9) said after the ceremony. “Tanger Outlets makes it more of a destination. We’re tired of seeing money just leave the county. We want it to come here and circulate here.”

His buddy, council member Derrick L. Davis (D-District 6) chimed in.

“Our collective, economic earning power is systematically diminished every time we take a dollar across state lines,” Davis said. “We are the masters of our fate, and we are seriously changing our fate.

Montgomery is a columnist for The RootDC.

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