Clad in work boots and thick gloves, Nikita F. Floyd looked proudly at the nondescript patch of grass he had transformed into a sustainable storm water management project adorned with catmint and dogwood.
Before, polluted runoff from the adjacent parking lot or building roofs would have soaked through the grass and, eventually, crept into the Chesapeake Bay. Now, a type of soil designed to filter toxins and chemicals from the water stops just that, and the space has gone from an eyesore to a manicured beauty.
"I won't be famous, but I will feel like I've done my part," said Floyd, president and owner of Green Forever Landscaping and Design.
Green Forever was one of the first seven to participate in Prince George's Clean Water Partnership, which aims to retrofit up to 2,000 acres of impervious surfaces in the Maryland suburb with green infrastructure.
The partnership is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the county government and the private-sector company Corvias Solutions, officials say.
Launched in 2015 to meet clean-water regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, the partnership manages more than 120 construction projects in the county and through its Mentor Protege Program coaches small, minority and disadvantaged businesses to become competitive and successful bidders for storm water management projects.
"We envisioned [the partnership] to be able to maximize the impact that our restoration work was having on as many sectors and aspects of quality of life as possible," said Adam Ortiz, director of Prince George's Department of the Environment. "We see all of this work as very interconnected — economically, socially, culturally and ecologically."
How Maryland jurisdictions address clean-water regulatory requirements has been a point of political contention in the state for years.
The law was widely unpopular among Republicans running for the governorship in the last election cycle, who dubbed it a "rain tax." GOP nominee Larry Hogan (R) taunted Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, as someone who "even taxed the rain."
After defeating Brown in a general-election upset, Hogan vowed to eliminate the state requirement and said counties could continue funding storm water management programs through their existing budgets, rather than collect the fee.
In Prince George's, Ortiz said, the fee pays for the Clean Water Partnership and allows the county to "do this restoration work, but do it in a way that provides economic opportunity."
Small businesses that participate will have opportunities to grow and compete regionally, even nationally, for green infrastructure contracts.
"We want to be the storm water capital," he said.
The first group of participating businesses completed the program in August. Owners attended training sessions on topics from accounting to reading blueprints. Six of the seven businesses bid work over the past year and won contracts totaling $3.1 million.
Jami Kirila said she and her husband had considered starting a small business "off and on for a couple years" but did not launch their effort until after they moved from western Pennsylvania to Northern Virginia in 2014 and learned about Prince George's Clean Water Partnership.
They have since moved to Annapolis and based Kirila Earthworks, a woman-owned site and utility contractor, in Bowie in Prince George's. Kirila said mentorship through the program enabled her to build relationships with local banks and insurance providers, as well as secure strong project bonding relatively soon after the business's founding.
"I just didn't want to start a business without something deeper behind it," Kirila, 47, said. "This partnership — which is allowing for green infrastructure construction — fit the niche for us as far as giving back or making a difference."
Christopher Williams, principal and managing director of Grace Management and Construction said the Clean Water Partnership afforded him "a qualifying stamp" as a business owner in the emerging industry of green infrastructure. He noted that participants in the program are not given a "free ride" but must demonstrate their ability and competitiveness to be granted bids.
"We're at the front end of a national industry," said Williams, 51, of Upper Marlboro. "We can go anywhere in the nation and participate and perform."
Floyd, 49, founded Green Forever in 1988, when he was 19. After decades of building his business, the recession hit him hard. His store was ransacked. At one point, he says, he considered suicide.
The Clean Water Partnership led him to new and better opportunities for contracts, he said, including the site he transformed outside the Landover office building that houses Junior Achievement, an organization educating young students about financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
He completed that project in 2016 and still has a contract to maintain it.
"That's why this place is special," he said.