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Prince George’s County economy rebounds from pandemic job loss

Kevyn Scott, owner of two Charleys Cheesesteaks locations, outside his store in Bowie, Md., on June 10. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
8 min

After years of leading the state in job growth, Prince George’s County was among the hardest-hit localities in the Washington region as the pandemic took root, walloping the same communities suffering from illness and deaths with steep job losses.

More than 63,000 people saw their jobs in this D.C. suburb evaporate between February and May 2020, a Washington Post analysis found, showing that even one of the wealthiest majority-Black jurisdictions in the country would not be immune from the economic tumult borne disproportionately by communities of color.

Two years later, officials say they are on track to hit pre-pandemic employment levels before 2022 is out — a rate even some of the most optimistic county boosters are relieved by.

“Every time there’s a downturn, Prince George’s is always the slowest to rebound in the region. We’re the slowest to get our jobs back, the slowest to come back from those downturns. Everybody was afraid that would be the case,” said Angie Rodgers, Prince George’s County deputy chief administrative officer for economic development. “Thankfully, you know that hasn’t happened, and we’re actually rebounding faster than we thought we would.”

The resilience of the once economically lagging county has given leaders and experts high hopes for what Prince George’s can become as it seeks to pivot away from pandemic recovery toward long-term economic growth, competing with other rapidly growing hot spots in the region like Northern Virginia. County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) called it a time of “rising opportunity” at the county’s annual State of the Economy address this month, discussing plans for new projects — such as a bid for the FBI headquarters and investing in the Blue Line Corridor.

For Yulonda Wright of Capitol Heights, a mother of three whose job at a Starbucks disappeared in March 2020, opportunity looked like moving through fear of bringing sickness home to provide for her family. She found it at Charleys Cheesesteaks, which has remained open with the help of a county grant.

“As far as work, I was elated,” Wright said. “As far as, because it was still pandemic, I was still kind of scared.”

She’s now the district manager.

Leading the state before the pandemic

Nearly a decade ago, county officials intent on charting the economic future of Prince George’s knew what they were up against: a tax base that skewed residential and a history of being a place to live but not necessarily work.

In a strategic effort to change that dynamic, the county worked to lure more than 21,000 jobs between 2013 and 2018, surpassing neighboring Montgomery County and leading the state in job growth for six years.

“It was a real turnaround, beginning with a new strategic plan and a heavy focus on convincing businesses that this was going to be a location where they were going to receive a very receptive government,” said David Iannucci, president of the Prince George’s Economic Development Corp.

Iannucci and Rodgers agreed that the risk of losing all that growth made the devastation of the pandemic that much more alarming.

When the losses began, they knew who would suffer most.

Home to a large population of service-sector workers, especially in hospitality, Prince George’s was bound to be hard-hit, Iannucci said.

Of the people who lost their jobs in the county, at least 35,700 — about 57 percent — were Black, according to quarterly workforce data from the U.S. census.

Data shows people of color were most affected in the county.

Excluding workers who either owned their own businesses or were self-employed, Black people lost about 21 percent of the jobs they held by the second quarter of 2020. Asian workers lost about 16 percent of the jobs they held. That’s compared with White workers losing 10 percent of the jobs they held.

“What the pandemic did was, it took the already existing disparities and gaps between those who are experiencing poverty and those who are wealthy, and it further exacerbated that gap,” said Walter Simmons, president and CEO of Employ Prince George’s.

Quickly, county leaders and organizations such as the Economic Development Corp. and Employ Prince George’s, the county’s nonprofit job center, realized they needed to react.

Reaching those who needed help

Iannucci said the Prince George’s Economic Development Corp. put out $44 million in grants to more than 2,500 businesses and helped preserve 6,000 to 7,000 jobs. Simmons said Employ Prince George’s has helped place 600 people into jobs through a rapid re-employment grant this year, and the organization has given out $4 million in grants for businesses to hire Prince George’s County residents.

That’s how Kevyn Scott was able to hire Wright and keep his new Charleys Cheesesteaks franchise staffed.

Scott had always wanted to get into the restaurant business. Even as he watched a deadly virus wipe out millions of jobs and cause businesses around the country to shutter their doors, he followed through with his plans to open his own Charleys franchise in Prince George’s.

In early 2021, Scott opened his first store, a daunting experience, he said, marked by revolving challenges: first staffing, then supply chain, now inflation. There were days when he didn’t know if he would be able to stay open.

“I realized I needed help,” Scott said. “Being a new owner, I always wanted to be plugged into what resources were available.”

Scott said that through Employ Prince George’s, he was able to fill 31 positions — including hiring Wright.

Simmons also noted that the county’s Stand Up and Deliver feeding program targeted hunger that came with pandemic job loss but that it also doubled as a workforce training program to help those who were unemployed learn how to pack and move goods.

“While we rebounded from the jobs, we also have a lot of impacted people who were the heaviest impacted, which means food insecurities, rental assistance, maybe the jobs that they had weren’t coming back,” Simmons said. “So that’s why you saw such a comprehensive effort in Prince George’s County to try to combat those and support our residents.”

And some communities were more affected than others. In Langley Park, CASA has helped fill that gap for immigrant and Spanish-speaking communities to help navigate the challenges that came with job loss through the pandemic.

Maria Vicente, 37, said when the pandemic hit there was no more work for her cleaning or working construction jobs, so she pivoted and started working with a pastor to help the community by volunteering and helping with food drives.

“It was difficult. There was a lot of people that were left without food or work. People would tell me about their struggles, and some of us had difficulty finding a way out,” Vicente said in Spanish. “Things were looking bleak when the pastor called me to mobilize and help working. That’s where I realized that I needed to help the community, especially Langley Park because there was a lot of need there.”

Vicente said she’s back to work, but it remains unstable — just picking up a few cleaning jobs a week. Her priority remains working to help her community.

Working toward a destination future

With most jobs recovered, county leaders set about designing a plan they hope will keep Prince George’s County growing. In March, the county released a new economic development strategic action plan, its first in nearly a decade since a 2013 framework. The plan was introduced to the County Council for approval last month.

And their plans are among the most progressive in economic development today, said Brookings Institution Metro program fellow Tracy Hadden Loh.

It closely follows the 2013 plan with an emphasis on creating higher-paying jobs within the county by focusing on emerging industry clusters and fostering talent within the county through education. But this year’s plan also includes “place making” as a new priority, which means building out hot spots in the county that can be destinations where people want to live, work and play.

Loh said the priorities outlined in the new economic strategy will probably lead to continued growth. Focusing on building out downtowns, such as the development in New Carrollton, will create more well-rounded attractions for young people, rather than relying on the promise of development around a sole project, such as the Washington Commanders’ FedEx Field in Landover. The Commanders are scouting for a new home for after their contract in Prince George’s ends in 2027.

“In Prince George’s County, the bones are really there. There are existing assets to scaffold those strategies off of, and so that is truly like taking your blessings and working to multiply them, as opposed to trying to get a spaceship to land in your county,” Loh said, “or a football team.”

Wright, the district manager at Charleys Cheesesteaks, said she hopes to see her county continue to grow — especially to add more affordable housing and entertainment options, because she wants to enjoy the county.

It’s where she plans to retire.