In the nine years that Eugene Grant has been mayor of Seat Pleasant, nobody has ever accused him of being short on big ideas for the Prince George’s County enclave of 4,500 residents.
So when he introduced his idea for City Center, a $100 million complex that would include a new city hall, community and wellness center, and apartments for senior citizens, he thought his vision would be well received.
“We were talking about job creation, training for young people . . . and a state-of-the-art senior citizens building,” Grant said in an interview, his eyes twinkling with excitement.
But for Eugene F. Kennedy and three other members of the City Council, Grant’s grand vision was too grand. Not only was the project unrealistic, they believed, but it could also put the city in debt. Instead, said Kennedy (Ward 5), the city — with its $3.3 million budget — should think smaller and simply renovate an aging community center as a way to slowly spur development.
“It was too much money to build three buildings that were not going to bring in any revenue,” said Kennedy, who led a group of council members late last year to defeat Grant’s proposal, 4 to 1.
The debate has split the city like no other issue in years, residents said.
So in the weeks since the council’s decision, Grant and others have been pushing for opponents to reopen the public debate and allow for another vote on the project. For many residents, City Center would add a much-needed boost to a tiny city that hasn’t had much development to cheer about in a generation.
“You don’t put new wine in an old wine bottle,” Grant said of the council’s wish to build a smaller project. He added that the project was three years in the making. “We are about building for the future. It is crazy for leaders to want to go backwards,” he added.
The debate over competing visions for Seat Pleasant’s immediate future illustrates the plight of many small cities, towns and neighborhoods in the county looking for new development.
For years, many of the communities were ignored by developers, who chose to build large subdivisions and office parks outside the Capital Beltway. Supporters said it was an opportunity to bring a gleaming-new structure to a sagging community. Indeed, over the past 30 years, Seat Pleasant has lost thousands of residents, its population steadily falling from 7,000 in the mid-1980s.
Meanwhile, some residents have asked why the city, less than a square mile in size, can’t duplicate the success of some other sections of Prince George’s, including Hyattsville. That community has seen new apartments, restaurants and bars over the past five years along some sections of Route 1. There has been development success lately in several other parts of the county outside the Beltway as well.
“This project would have been something that we would have been proud of,” said Mary Barber, 61, who has lived in Seat Pleasant for 19 years. “We could have been like the city of Bowie . . . but now we can’t do anything.”
The depth of the division in the city was on full display Jan. 13, when a public forum was held to discuss the initial vote. Residents packed the council’s chambers, at times expressing anger at the lawmakers for defeating the project.
Grant plans to propose the plan to the council again, and he added that any debt incurred by the City Center would be paid off by fees from the wellness center, building the senior housing and selling the name to the recreation center. Opponents maintained that a city with a modest budget and limited means would not be able to sustain the debt that a multimillion-dollar project might incur.
“Our legal advisers showed us that it wasn’t self-sustaining,” said City Council member Elenora Simms (Ward 1).
Like Kennedy, she wanted to renovate the community center, which she said could pay for itself. “We want development in the community, but it has to be cost-effective.”
But many other residents were unmoved by the council’s concerns. At times, the forum felt more like a Pentecostal service as Grant quoted Scripture and about 50 of his supporters shouted “Amen!” and “Oh, Lord!” in response to his arguments. At one point, county police escorted some people out of the meeting.
Grant also has been aided by the project’s lone supporter on the council, Chairman Reveral L. Yeargin (Ward 3), who is pressing to continue the conversation.
“The city needs economic development, but it has to be negotiated,” Yeargin said. “I am dealing with council members who really don’t understand business,” he added.
Many residents saw the promise of City Center as a way to attract new residentsas well as keep younger residents from leaving.
“When I go into other communities, they really have things built up,” said Carla Hart, 51, who grew up in Seat Pleasant and moved back in 2006.
“We need jobs. We need revitalization in this community.”