New numbers show Prince George’s is emerging from an economic rut that has stymied growth and devastated family wealth, but the county continues to lag behind its regional neighbors in nearly all measures.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) unveiled economic data Monday that demonstrate that Prince George’s has created thousands of jobs, reduced unemployment and seen home prices jump nearly 50 percent in the nearly five years since he took office.
Baker and the County Council have made economic development the focus of their administration, setting aside millions for a business loan program, streamlining the permitting process, green-lighting projects like the MGM casino and pushing forward on a hospital. With $6 billion worth of projects, officials say Prince George’s is ripe for business development.
“For the first time, we are competitors,” Baker said, recalling how early in his tenure he had to court developers at retail conferences because so few companies were interested. Now, he said, “they come to us.”
“Throughout Prince George’s County, we are on the rebound,” he said.
Overcoming negative perception took time, officials said. Baker took office just as his predecessor was heading to trial on corruption charges and the county had a reputation for making business difficult with its labyrinthine bureaucracy.
“Rushern Baker has done an excellent job of highlighting the county’s assets,” said David Versel, senior vice president at Delta Associates, a commercial real estate research firm. “But when you are starting from such a disadvantage, there’s a lot of work to be done.”
The recession weakened the regional economy and set Prince George’s back even further. It was hit harder than any of its neighbors by a mortgage crisis that sent thousands of families into foreclosure, economists say. The county has also suffered from a stubborn inability to attract the kind of investment the region has enjoyed in the past.
“Prince George’s got hit hard, but they are starting to recover,”said Terry Clower of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. “They still have work to do to broaden and diversify their economy. . . . They have some key advantages that could drive additional growth.”
The county’s median home sales price rose to $238,000 this year and is above the national median. But the price point is about half of what a home yields on average in the region ($432,500), in Montgomery County ($419,900) and in Fairfax County ($491,827).
Down nearly 2 percent since 2011, only the District of Columbia (6.9 percent) has a higher unemployment rate than Prince George’s — 5.6 percent — which nearly mirrors the national rate (5.5 percent), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The county’s affordability relative to the region does have its benefits. Real estate agent Jean Pirovic, who operates in College Park and surrounding neighborhoods, said families being priced out elsewhere are looking for bargains near mass transit.“We have more buyers than we do houses,” Pirovic said.
County homes are spending 58 fewer days on the market in 2015 than they were five years ago. Better amenities such as the anticipated Whole Foods in Riverdale Park have made some Prince George’s properties more attractive.
“I think it could be better,” she said. “Prince George’s has always offered buyers the opportunity to get good value for their money.”
Clower said growth is coming from transit stations. With 15 Metro stations, Prince George’s can “provide the type of housing and density of development that seems to be very much what people are looking for.”
Anirban Basu, an economist and chief executive of the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group, said his colleagues have speculated about when Prince George’s moment would arrive: “I think it’s coming, but a lot of things have to happen before Prince George’s can expect an economic boom,” Basu said. “The county schools remain problematic and are having to compete with many of the best school systems in the country.”
Baker lobbied unsuccessfully for a school spending plan that called for dramatic investments funded by double-digit property tax increases. The public and lawmakers rejected the plan in favor of a smaller increase. Prince George’s schools are consistently among the lowest-performing systems in the state.
Despite the gains, the county is struggling financially. Home values may be increasing but the county’s tax laws limit how much revenue the government can capture.
“We still have challenges, but if you have a strong labor market and improving housing market, those things will eventually translate into more revenue for the county,” said Thomas Himler, Baker’s budget administrator. “We think we have the right playbook.”
Still, in one of the most economically competitive regions of the country, Prince George’s County officials are celebrating the numbers: More than 4,600 new jobs were created; wages are up 7 percent and 11,600 more county residents were employed in June 2015 than during the same period in 2011.
“Finally, after a whole lot of work, we’re seeing the kind of movement we’ve wanted to see,” said David Iannucci, Baker’s top economic development aide. “It took longer than we would’ve liked, but this is a sign we are coming out of it.”