The bespectacled salesman stared intently at Navneet Gupta, president of a Chantilly, Va.-based IT services provider that was searching for new office space.
“I’m Jim Coleman, the CEO of the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation — that’s C-E-O, chief excitement officer,” the salesman said. “We’ve been watching your company closely.”
What followed was a volley of statistics delivered with the zeal and crisp enunciation of a preacher: 15 Metro stations; nearly 1 million residents; eight colleges and universities; 14 federal agencies; more than $50 billion in contracting opportunities.
Coleman is the evangelist to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III’s hoped-for economic revival. Armed with generous tax incentives, loans and other offers of assistance, he has launched an aggressive campaign to lure businesses with expiring leases from Northern Virginia and the District, calling potential converts to see how they might prosper in a jurisdiction that for decades has struggled to compete with its wealthier neighbors.
The county, just east of Washington, is in a perpetual state of catch-up, working to move past negative perceptions created by old corruption scandals, still-struggling public schools, and rates of poverty and violent crime that remain far higher than those in Montgomery, Fairfax and other nearby counties. And although attracting businesses from elsewhere is tantalizing, experts warn that such victories won’t have long-term economic impact unless county schools and colleges do a better job preparing residents for the jobs that the companies bring.
Still, Coleman soldiers on, driven by a belief that bringing in new employers is the crucial first step in providing new opportunities.
“I don’t care about making profits. I care about creating jobs,” he says, his voice quickening. “The best way to fight income inequality is not through pennies, but skill development.”
Coleman became close friends with Baker 37 years ago, when they were undergraduate students at Howard University. Coleman ran Baker’s first campaign for office, as a student government leader. Six months ago, in his second term as county executive, Baker brought his college buddy on board.
Coleman is effusive in offering his personal help to advocate for companies inside and outside of the county, boasting that he uses the “Bat phone” — or has a direct line to Baker.
It’s a personal crusade that takes Coleman back to his roots on a Kentucky pig farm. His Southern drawl thickens as he begins to tell the tale of how his business acumen was forged feeding hogs for his family.
At the age of 12, Coleman says, he became “CEO of Coleman Crest,” the business his family built on land where his great-grandfather — also named James — once toiled as a slave hand and bought for $1,200 in 1888.
Growing up, Coleman says, the family had to be resourceful to survive.
When feed became too expensive for raising pork, Coleman’s father turned to a local restaurant that had trouble getting rid of its scraps and offered to buy the slop for pigs. That grew into a side business supplying other local farmers who also needed a cheaper food source for their animals.
“That’s what I want for everyone,” Coleman says, turning the story back to his pitch. “I want every ‘Bubba’ to have a chance to build wealth with their own two hands.”
Coleman — who is paid $175,000 a year — loves to cite improving economic indicators that Prince George’s released last month showing job growth, rising home prices and lower unemployment.
But nearly 1 in 10 county residents still lives in poverty, more than anywhere else in the region except the District. Young college graduates in Prince George’s earn, on average, about $6,000 less in annual income than their Washington-area peers, according to the Brookings Institution.
When asked, Coleman acknowledges the challenges in Prince George’s but quickly pivots the conversation to the county’s selling points.
“Focus on the controllables,” he likes to say. It’s a lesson he learned while working for corporations such as Altria, the parent company of one of the globe’s largest cigarette makers, Philip Morris, and PepsiCo.
“We’ve got plenty of land,” he told a room full of executives from Gupta’s company, SNAP. “Prince George’s is on fire. . . . This place is hot.”
Of the four business leaders whom Coleman has met with recently, three made commitments to expand into Prince George’s, including Gupta and Steve Dunn, president of Well Dunn Catering, which had outgrown its warehouse in Northeast Washington.
During each pitch, Coleman asked the prospective company what it needed, offered to hold executives’ hands through the administrative motions and looked to build rapport.
“He is a believer; you could tell that,” said Alankar Joshi, executive vice president of Creative Information Technology in Falls Church, Va., which is considering opening an branch in the county. “It’s more than a job for him.”
In all, 17 new businesses have agreed to relocate to Prince George’s in the past 12 months, lured by tax credits, grants for training employees, loans and proximity to federal agencies and the University of Maryland. During the same time, at least two have left.
Dunn said he searched all over the District for new space but was impressed by the cheap price of land in Prince George’s — and the county’s help in finding a location off of Kenilworth Avenue in an enterprise zone, where Dunn can benefit from tax credits.
Coleman also offered to drive the moving truck.
Dunn said he plans to hire locally and partner with culinary programs that are offered in local public schools. “People perceive Prince George’s as being this backwater place,” Dunn said. “And I don’t think that’s the case at all.”
Gupta, whose firm just won a contract with the Census Bureau in Suitland, said locating in Prince George’s is “cheaper and logical because it is not very far from our clients. . . . If my employees are happy, it works out great for me.”
Some companies were drawn by a program that uses federal grant money to reimburse the cost of salary or training for new hires, provided that companies give jobless residents a chance. The jobs must be full time and pay between $14 and $25 an hour, and the county will reimburse up to $12,000 per participant.
Tommie Thompson, president of the D.C. financial services firm Bazilio Cobb Associates, said he will utilize the program if he is able to open a satellite office in the county next year.
“I’ll pay Tommie . . . if he puts my people to work in Prince George’s County,” Coleman said at a recent meeting, speaking into a video camera because the session was being recorded for marketing purposes.
Thompson, who grew up in Prince George’s, did not need any more persuasion.
“We’re looking forward to coming home and putting some Prince Georgians to work,” Thompson said. “What I see makes me feel good about being a Prince Georgian.”