For 20 years, Prince George's County government officials looked for a developer willing to take on the financial risk of transforming the neighborhood around the Suitland Metro station.
They offered tax incentives, increment financing, subsidies and land. But the area's blight, crime and lack of infrastructure, plus a belief that few would want to buy a home or open a business there, sent investors walking in the opposite direction — toward projects in the District and Virginia.
So the county is launching the makeover itself.
The government spent tens of millions to buy land across from the Suitland Federal Center campus, bulldozed blight and built sidewalks, utilities and streets. Now it is overseeing the start of construction of a $402 million development called Town Square that eventually could include hundreds of apartments and homes, along with grocers, fast-casual restaurants and boutique retail.
If the project succeeds, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and his aides will have shown that a long-neglected part of their county has potential, generating some much-needed public revenue and possibly drawing private investment. Failure would mean a significant financial loss, and a black mark on Baker's record as he runs for governor.
"The risk is it becomes a 'Field of Dreams' scenario," said Terry Clower, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis. "You build it and no one comes."
Suitland is well-located, two miles from the District border with direct routes — the Suitland Parkway and Green Line — into downtown. But county officials say it presented a particular set of challenges.
Generations ago, it was a neighborhood of mostly government workers with covenants that prevented African Americans from moving in. After integration, hundreds of black professionals bought homes in the area. By the 1980s, however, poverty and disrepair had set in.
The Metro opened in 2001. Nearby, thousands of employees with money in their pockets work inside the gated federal campus, at the U.S. Census Bureau, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Office of Naval Intelligence and other agencies.
But the neighborhood has few of the amenities that new homeowners or apartment dwellers might want, such as popular restaurants or quality supermarkets. Until recently, crime was a major deterrent. People who commute to the federal campus rarely venture out.
"Those workers might move here if they fix this area," said Ollie Stone, an electrician who worked many years inside the federal campus and on a recent day was waiting for business cards at a print shop in a dilapidated strip mall not far from its gates. "There are all kinds of careers in there."
Kevin Sills, whose company Mid-Atlantic Real-Estate Investments is the largest landowner in Suitland, tried for years to launch housing and retail projects but could not get financial backing.
"Whether you build in Suitland, Virginia or the District, it costs the same. But you get 30 or 40 percent more in rent in those other places than you would in Suitland," Sills said, explaining why bankers were reluctant to lend to him. "People want to spend their money in the right place. . . . Nobody wants to be the pioneer."
The county government's protracted permitting and approval process also made developers wary of investing, but that has improved in recent years. At the same time, land, which Prince George's has in abundance, grew scarcer and more expensive in other close-to-the-District locations. The county now leads the region in job growth, officials said, and is ripe for investment. Still, the private sector showed minimal interest.
Baker's predecessors spent about $50 million buying land near the Metro station. Baker and the County Council set aside $38 million to purchase additional acreage, including the Suitland Corner strip mall, owned by Sills. The county plans to spend up to $22 million more for up to 45 acres along Suitland and Silver Hill roads.
"It's a lot of money to spend on a small footprint," said the Urban Institute's Brett Theodos. "They are making a big bet, which isn't to say it's a bad bet."
County officials say the investments stretched out over many years. Their primary goal, they say, is to draw new taxpayers to the area and, by doing that, to raise the land value and appeal to private developers.
Thomas Himler, Baker's chief economic and budget aide, says developers until now have asked the county government to provide millions of dollars in upfront expenses and extraordinary subsidies before they would consider building.
"If we have to do that, why don't we get the upside?" was the question Himler said he posed to Baker. "If we've got to put in that kind of money, then we should be the ones selling the lots and getting the profit."
The first phase of the Town Square project involves prepping 219 lots and selling them to private developer NVR, the parent company of Ryan Homes, which will build and sell market-rate townhouses for about $350,000 each. The county expects to clear $11 million from selling the lots. An NVR spokesman declined to be interviewed.
"If these homes sell and quickly, that will be a good indicator to private investors," Theodos said. "But that said, there is a question of whether the gamble will work."
In August, another firm hired by the county's Redevelopment Authority will begin constructing senior and other affordable housing.
The county plans to act as landlord for a new apartment building in the next stage of construction; officials are studying the kind of units they need and what they can charge.
Eventually, the county wants a 35-acre development that includes single-family homes, a public plaza, walking trails and a retail center. At least 3,000 people could live there, Himler said.
The plans have stirred some frustration among the few merchants who operate on parcels the county has bought, and soon will have to close or move elsewhere. Small business owners leasing space in the Suitland Corner strip mall received orders to vacate in October but won a reprieve until Jan. 5.
"It was unfair," said Geri Murphy, whose son owns a perfume shop on the strip. "You don't replace one set of merchants with another set just like that."
J. Kim, owner of Kim's Beauty Supply, said she was ready to retire after 30 years. "I'm just tired," she said.
For Baker, the project is the fulfillment of a promise made 20 years ago by his mentor and predecessor, Wayne K. Curry (D), who began the process of buying up land as the Metro system prepared to extend the Green Line.
"Wayne saw long before other people that you could revitalize this community," Baker said at a groundbreaking last month for Town Square's townhouses.