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Charles isn't just a street, you see

The people who promote Charles County think they have a great product - raw land earmarked for industry, a well-educated work force, a spot in the prized Washington metro area.

Alas, most businesses outside the Southern Maryland suburb have only the vaguest sense where, exactly, Charles County is.

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That's an increasingly pressing problem because homebuyers haven't had any difficulty finding the fast-growing jurisdiction, which is south of Prince George's County, east of the Potomac River and 15 miles from the Capital Beltway.

Now 65,000 workers live in a county with 38,000 jobs. Sixty percent of the residents drive elsewhere to earn their paychecks - one of the highest proportions of out-commuters in the state - and clog the roads while their children strain a school system largely dependent on residential property taxes.

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Local boosters, convinced they have the all-important location, location, location, if anyone would notice, are tired of Charles County being a well-kept secret while similarly strategic places such as Howard County are commercially hot.

But the upstart is striking back - aggressively advertising its existence.

"It's 'Charles County: We're not on the Eastern Shore,'" joked Harry Shasho, a commercial real estate agent who doubles as president of the county's Chamber of Commerce.

Radio spots announcing Charles as "a new business address in the nation's capital" have run every other week on WTOP and WASH since May. The Charles County Economic Development Commission, which is paying the tab, started running similar online ads in July, and print ads in the past year have highlighted new business parks such as Centennial Plaza in La Plata.

The gambit seems to be working. The commission is getting "tons" of comments about the ads and more calls than last summer from brokers and consultants representing businesses, said the group's marketing director, Marcia Keeth Stevenson.

"I can't say there's ever been a time that I've been doing this job that I've had so many inquiries all at once," said Stevenson, who intends to keep on advertising.

"It's important to be out there all the time because we're trying to ... keep Charles County on people's minds," she added.

The county's bottom line may depend on it.

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In the 1990s its population swelled 20 percent to more than 120,000 people, and nearly a third were younger than 20.

That has put pressure on the public school system, which is educating 25,600 students - about 800 more than last September - in buildings meant for 21,500. The average school has four portable classrooms.

The county concluded about a decade ago that homes drained $1.30 for every dollar they generated in property taxes - mainly because the children in them are expensive to educate - while businesses needed only 30 cents in services for the same amount in property tax.

But nearly two-thirds of the county's property tax revenue comes from residential real estate. Richard A. Winkler, the local director of fiscal services, would prefer the breakdown to be half-and-half.

"Either you raise the level of economic activities ... or you raise taxes," said Murray Levy, president of the Charles County Commissioners. "Because the demand for services is going up."

In the meantime, the county is handing newcomers an extra bill to help pay for school construction. This year state legislators approved a $9,700 excise tax on each new single-family-detached house in Charles, to be paid over 10 years, replacing a $5,000-per-house impact fee that developers paid upfront and passed along to the homebuyers.

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Money earmarked

But that money can be used only for building additional classrooms. Old schools still need renovations. The county still needs to pay for extra teachers, textbooks and computers.

"That's what the business base would help us to do," Winkler said.

Charles is in the throes of a very common transition, said David Rusk, an urban policy consultant in Washington. "Population first, then retail, then jobs," he said. "There was a time when Fairfax County, Va., was the sticks. Then it was just a suburban community. Now it's the global center of the Internet."

He thinks the key to making that leap is a wide range of housing - not just upper-end mansions - so the secretaries, technicians and janitors that companies need aren't constantly turning over because their commutes are atrocious. Montgomery County's "inclusionary" zoning is a good model, Rusk said.

No rich cousin

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Another challenge is that Charles can't simply rely on growth pressing out from suburban neighbors the way that Frederick, which is farther from Washington, has benefited from its proximity to affluent Montgomery.

"Charles County doesn't have a rich cousin to link to," said Stephen Fuller, a public policy professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who studied the county's housing and business economics five years ago. "It has Prince George's County, and Route 5 going down there is pretty empty. ... It's a harder sell, and my view is that Charles County has to create its own identity."

Richard Clinch, director of economic research for the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, studied the county around the same time as Fuller and concluded that it had a lot going for it - if it would reduce traffic congestion and extend public water and sewer lines to more industrially zoned land.

Local boosters had hoped to gain federal contractors from the continuing expansion of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in neighboring St. Mary's County, but Clinch concluded in another study last year that new businesses flocking to the base largely ignored Charles.

"Unfortunately, I think, they [Charles County) got the worst of it, because a lot of the people in those jobs moved to Charles County," Clinch said.

But Fuller is impressed by the inroads local officials have made. They're adding public utilities to two infant business parks in White Plains, part of the U.S. 301 corridor. County commissioners recently set aside $120 million for road expansions and improvements in the next half-decade.

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"Their strength is location; they've not capitalized on it as much as they've hoped," Clinch said, adding: "This is the time. The economy's starting to recover. ... This is a good product to sell."

The message Charles County is sending out on airwaves and online - that it exists, and in the Washington area to boot - is commendably simple, said Janet Wagner, associate chair of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business in College Park.

"If they repeat it often enough in the right media, they should have no difficulty getting it across," she said.

Shasho, the Chamber of Commerce president, said it doesn't hurt that the county is getting some free advertising. He knows residents with out-of-town jobs who are lobbying their bosses to move somewhere more convenient - say, Charles County? You know, that place in Southern Maryland?

"They're tired of driving," Shasho said. "We're the next growth area for the whole area, and we're ready."


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