When Rushern Baker III took over as Prince George’s County Executive seven years ago, the county had just about hit rock-bottom economically.
At that point, the county's fortunes had nowhere to go but up. His predecessor as county executive, Jack Johnson, was arrested in 2010 as part of a federal corruption probe. At the same time, many residents were losing jobs, property values plummeted and foreclosures skyrocketed as the 2008 recession took its toll.
“I was really, really, nervous,” Baker confessed Thursday morning in a speech at the Country Club of Woodmore. The speech was presented by the Bowie Chamber of Commerce.
At the time, Baker said, area businesses were wary of setting up shop in the county given its troubled political situation, difficult permitting process, high crime and questionable economic outlook.
“Businesses would not even entertain the idea of coming into Prince George’s County,” he said.
However, thanks to changes Baker and members of his staff made, the county is in much better economic shape today. So much so, in fact, that Baker is trying to use his effort in the county as a springboard to the Democratic nomination for governor this spring.
“I’m going to continue over the next several months to go around telling our great story,” he said.
Even with the progress made, the county is not without its problems. It still lags behind its neighbors in terms of median householder income ($76,741). In Howard County, for example, the figure is $110,224; in Montgomery, it’s $99,475. County schools also rank behind those in neighboring jurisdictions.
But the economic outlook has unquestionably improved during Baker’s tenure. Since Baker took office, businesses like the MGM National Harbor casino and hotel have located to the county. That project alone has created 3,600 new fulltime jobs, he said.
There are other signs of progress as well. Officials broke ground last fall on a new University of Maryland regional medical facility in downtown Largo. Inside-the-beltway areas like Hyattsville and Suitland have acquired a new cache for prospective homebuyers. In Bowie, a generous economic incentive package spurred the renovation of the decaying Marketplace shopping center and landed the county just its second Harris Teeter high-end grocery store. The county’s first Whole Foods opened a little more than a year ago in Riverdale Park.
During the second quarter of last year, the county had the greatest rate of employment growth (3.5 percent) in the state and in the National Capital Region, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure represented the 21st highest in the country among the 347 largest counties in the United States.
Two sites in the county – Greenbelt and Landover – were among the final three places (Springfield, Virginia was the other) in the running for the new FBI headquarters. Ultimately, federal officials scrapped plans to seek a new suburban location for the bureau. But the fact that the county was a serious part of those discussions is an indication that it’s considered a far better option for businesses than it once was. The FBI relocation would have added 11,000 jobs in the county.
Improving the county’s reputation as a place to do business was a focus from the start of his administration, Baker said.
“That didn’t happen by accident,” he said. “We focused on expanding our commercial tax base to bring quality jobs to the county. We had a strategy of expanding our economic development, reducing crime and improving our public education system.”
Crime has dropped significantly since 2010, according to county police data. According to figures announced in January by Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski, the county recorded an average 103 crimes per day in 2010. The county ended 2017 with an average 49 crimes a day, he said.
Baker maintains that schools have improved as well, but the system has been rocked by several scandals in recent years. Last year, a state audit determined that lax policies regarding record-keeping and late grade changes at county high schools allowed some students to graduate without meeting requirements. Some school board members and local legislators alleged that the grade-fixing was part of an orchestrated attempt to boost the county’s graduation rates, although the state audit did not reach that conclusion.
This week, three board members sent Baker a letter charging that school administrators were given unauthorized raises after increases for teachers were rejected. The letter asked for Baker to look into the matter.
Baker said he remains solidly in support of Kevin Maxwell, the school system’s CEO and a Baker appointee. Baker said he preferred to look at the overall picture than at any single issue with the school system.
“When I look at the totality of the school system, (people) would have to come to the decision that we are better - and that’s something you have to give the leadership of school system credit for,” he said.