The Prince George’s County government wants to move its headquarters from sleepy Upper Marlboro to Largo, an area near the Capital Beltway that is more bustling and Metro-accessible, according to County Council members who were briefed on the plans this week.
Two council members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the briefing was part of a closed-door session, said County Executive Rushern L. Baker III would like to house his offices — and the council’s — in a newly purchased building at 1301 McCormick Drive.
Such a move would bring government leaders closer to a growing commercial center in the county, including the site of a proposed regional hospital that officials say should be a major economic catalyst.
But relocating from Upper Marlboro — the county seat for nearly three centuries — could be controversial. A spokesman for Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D), whose district used to include Upper Marlboro, said the lawmaker is opposed to moving the county seat.
Baker and his aides have been reluctant to discuss their plans, which they say remain preliminary. Their secrecy has fueled frustration among critics, including several on the council, and has done little to quell rampant rumors that a move is coming.
“It’s troubling that we don’t know more before committing county resources,” council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) said in an interview Monday night before the executive session briefing.
Council Chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) said the council “has not authorized moving the whole of government to Largo.”
And state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s) said “everyone in our county should see” what the government has planned for the McCormick Drive building — and other parcels it has recently purchased.
The Baker administration declined repeated requests from The Washington Post to detail its plans.
There has been talk for decades of relocating the government to Largo, home to a station on Metro’s Blue Line, FedEx Field, Six Flags amusement park and the Capital Boulevard retail center.
County leaders want to build a booming downtown in Largo alongside the regional hospital, which is awaiting final state approval. They say having government agencies there adds important energy and bustle, and makes it easier for Prince George’s residents and government employees to transact county business.
When Baker took office, at least five county agencies already operated out of buildings in Largo that the county purchased and leased in the 1990s. Land records show Baker’s administration has overseen the purchase of at least eight parcels and buildings since 2011, and has moved four more agencies to Largo.
Today, most of the county’s executive branch is housed in Largo, within a half a mile of the Beltway and Metro’s Largo Town Center station. When Baker sits down with residents for “Citizen Day” each quarter, he does not meet them at his office in Upper Marlboro, but at one of the recently purchased locations.
But Baker’s formal offices and top staff are still housed in the County Administration Building, along with council members’ offices, hearing rooms and board rooms.
The county’s most recent purchase was the nearly empty office building on McCormick Drive, which the government quietly bought in January to house “administrative functions.”
During budget negotiations this spring, Baker requested $12 million to renovate the building, which had gone into foreclosure. The government referred to the property as a “Regional Administration Building.”
Council member Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland) pressed for more details, but Central Services Director Roland L. Jones said inquiries should be directed to Baker during a closed executive session. The council refused to approve the funding but said it would reconsider the request if more information was provided.
“I think it’s a very bad idea to use taxpayer money without having all the details,” council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) said last week. “I’m not happy about it at all.”
Muse said the purchase of land and buildings seemed fiscally irresponsible for a county government that is approaching its debt limit and facing dwindling cash reserves.
“The government should not be in the business of land speculation,” Muse said. “The timing is wrong, the presentation is wrong and the process is wrong.”
But Thomas Himler, Baker’s budget chief, said the government paid bargain rates for the buildings and land because of the depressed county real estate market. He said he expects to see their value rise as the hospital and other projects take shape.
Undeveloped tracts on Peppercorn Place and McCormick Drive, which were purchased in December and January, were bought at a discount, Himler said, “for potential future growth over the next 15 to 20 years.”
The last time Prince George’s changed its county seat was in 1718, when residents petitioned the General Assembly to move their courthouse a few miles upstream from Charles Town to what is now Upper Marlboro, then a bustling port for tobacco ships traveling on the Patuxent River.
County officials said it is not yet clear whether the government would need similar permission to move the county executive’s and County Council’s offices to Largo, especially if the modern-day courthouse complex stays put.
Upper Marlboro has fewer than 800 residents, but it hosts about 6,000 people — mostly county employees — each weekday. Town President Steve Sonnett said he would demand reparations if Upper Marlboro’s main patron up and left.
“We’ve heard the rumors for years,” Sonnett said. “They can’t just leave it a ghost town.”