You could call Bowie the annexation capital of Maryland.
The Prince George's County city of 43,500 -- just over the line from Anne Arundel County -- has annexed more land, more often, than any other incorporated city in the state. More than 60 annexations later, it is Maryland's fifth-largest city.
"The quality of growth is the big issue now," explains Mayor Gary G. Allen. "Bowie is a rapidly changing community in the 1990s. We're attracting more commercial growth than ever before."
Since being incorporated in 1874 as Huntington (the name was later changed in honor of former Gov. Oden Bowie, a resident), the land mass of the town has grown from a tiny burg to its current size of 15 square miles -- nine miles long and up to two miles wide in some places.
Since the mid-1980s, more than a dozen developments have been built and annexed into the town, which continues to attract residential and retail development. Mr. Allen says Bowie experienced $90 million of development in 1994, two-thirds commercial and one-third residential.
Commercial projects in and around Bowie in recent years include: a new stadium for the Bowie Baysox minor-league baseball team just outside the city limits, a Wal-Mart store, the nation's largest Lowe's home center, seven new restaurants and two new strip shopping centers.
The city is looking to increase its employment base by attracting high-tech firms to the University of Maryland Science and Technology Center, a joint project by the city, state and private developers, located off Route 301. It recently cinched a contract with the federal government to locate the U.S. Census facility for the year 2000 in the park, a $30 million project which is expected to bring hundreds of new jobs.
Bowie anticipates at least 2,000 homes being built within the city by the year 2000, bringing the population to about 50,000. Most residents support growth, according to the mayor, bringing in new residents and businesses to support the tax base.
"The vision is to have controlled growth, careful growth," he says. "To bring in more offices and more retail, in particular, in areas that are earmarked for that purpose."
Before 1960, Bowie was just another small railroad town, with about 1,000 residents. Its biggest attraction was the Bowie Race Track, now closed, which employed local residents and attracted racing aficionados from miles around. It is now used as a training facility for race horses.
"I remember all the people coming down on the train from Baltimore," says Marie Crump, who has lived in the Huntington section, referred to as old Bowie, for 50 years. She remembers a close-knit community with its own grocery and general stores, newspaper and other businesses.
"We moved here because we wanted some land," she says, adding that she and her husband, Thomas, bought four acres, built a house and raised two children in the community.
But the Bowie she moved to changed dramatically after developer William J. Levitt -- of Levittown fame -- discovered 3,000 acres of available land from the old Belair estate, which had dominated the area.
Mr. Levitt, who developed post-World War II suburban communities in New Jersey, Long Island and Pennsylvania, had the property annexed into Bowie, old-timers say, because he could proceed more quickly and with fewer concessions than if he had gone through the county planning and zoning process.
In 1961, he began building what would eventually be 9,000 of the community's 14,000 homes, planning sections around schools, churches, parks and other amenities. In just five years, Bowie's population increased from about 1,000 to almost 20,000.
"It kind of became the tail that wagged the dog," says Mrs. Crump, who added that for a long time, many residents of old Bowie felt shortchanged by the deal.
"We wondered where all the amenities were that we were supposed to get -- the pools, the sidewalks," she says. "We just didn't get what we thought we would. And we never dreamed it would grow as big as it did."
Over the years, most Huntington folks have made their peace with the "Belair" development, she says, realizing the new homes filled city coffers with tax revenues.
And as old Bowie has experienced a bit of a renaissance itself, with antique shops filling several vacant stores and new houses cropping up on empty lots, the resentment has diminished further.
"I don't think it really bothers anyone anymore," concedes Mrs. Crump.
Today, Bowie serves primarily as a bedroom community to a half-dozen employment centers, including Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis and Greenbelt, with its NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and National Agricultural Research Center.
The Levitt portions of the community remain largely residential -- single-family, detached homes on quarter-acre lots, set on tree-lined streets. A number of townhouse communities have been added recently and the city's first apartment complex was built in 1987.
Good housing deal
Residents say they were attracted to Bowie in the 1960s because the homes built by Mr. Levitt, who kept costs down by building only six different houses and using slab foundations, were spacious and reasonably priced.
"It was just a wonderful place to raise kids," says Richard Logue, mayor from 1982 to 1994 and a city council member before that. "We have good neighbors, good schools, good housing values, good boys and girls' clubs -- where else could you find all that for the money?"
Early residents say they paid $14,000 to $16,000 for four-bedroom Cape Cods, Colonials and ranchers. Many houses have been remodeled and expanded over the years, softening the impact of "tract housing" where all the houses look the same.
Homes in Bowie now sell for about $120,000 to $300,000, with most Levitt houses going for $120,000 to $180,000.
Single-family homes in newer neighborhoods, built in the 1980s and 1990s, start at about $200,000 and sell for as much as $400,000, real estate agents say.
Tom Howard, a resident and agent with Long and Foster, says many developers are building larger, higher-priced homes because many Bowie residents want to "move up" without leaving the community.
"For a long time, we were losing our more prosperous residents, who'd end up moving elsewhere to find more upscale housing. (( They didn't want to leave Bowie, but Bowie didn't offer what they wanted," he says.
In the early 1980s, developers "took a chance" and built two higher-priced neighborhoods -- Belair Greens and Grady's Walk -- and the homes were "snatched up" by Bowie residents, Mr. Howard says.
"I think more than 80 percent of those homes were bought by Bowie residents," he says. "They were small [developments], but they let developers know there was a market here."
One of the biggest selling points in Bowie now, he says, are city services, supplementing what is offered by the county.
The city provides trash, water and sewer services, maintains 115 miles of city streets, enforces extensive municipal codes involving home maintenance, contracts with Prince George's County for four additional police officers and offers numerous recreational outlets, such as parks, bike trails, boys and girls' clubs and two museums -- the Huntington Railroad Museum and the soon-to-open, restored Belair mansion.
The current tax rate of 73 cents for $100 of assessed value means a resident with a $150,000 house would pay about $440 annually in addition to county taxes.
Many residents say it's worth it.
"First of all, this is a very tight community. A lot of people who came at the beginning are still here," says Miguel Boluda, who raised four children in Bowie with his wife, Gladys. "There are a lot of good organizations here to keep these kids busy. It's a very good atmosphere here.
"And now, all these kids have grown up and gotten married and are coming back to Bowie to raise their families. That's a phenomenon all around Bowie." And certainly within the Boluda family. All four Boluda children, along with seven grandchildren, have returned to live in their hometown, Mr. Boluda says.
Population: 43,500 (City of Bowie estimate for 1995)
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 40 minutes
Commuting time to Washington: 30 minutes
Public schools: Kenilworth, Heather Hills, Tulip Grove, Highbridge, Yorktown, Rockledge, Samuel Ogle, Glenn Dale, Woodmore and Pointer Ridge elementary schools; Benjamin Tasker Middle School; Bowie High School
Shopping: The Market Place with Safeway; Free State Mall with Sears; Pointer Ridge Shopping Center with Giant Food; Collington Plaza with Giant Food; Bowie Plaza with Giant Food; Hilltop Plaza with Magruder's; Mount Oak Plaza with 7-Eleven; Whitehall Shopping Center with Bowie Seafood Market; Wal-Mart.
Nearest mall: Free State Mall, in the center of Bowie; Annapolis Mall, 10 miles east
Points of interest: Allen Pond and Opportunity Park, with ice rink, ballfields, playgrounds and amphitheatre; University of Maryland Science and Technology Center; historic Belair Mansion and Belair Stable Museum; Bowie Baysox Stadium; Bowie State University; Huntington Railroad Museum
ZIP codes: 20715, 20716, 20720
Average price of a single-family home *: $154,712 (487 sales)
* Average price for homes sold through the Prince George's County Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service in Area 12, which includes most of Bowie.