UPPER MARLBORO – For County Executive Rushern Baker, III, 2016 has been a year of major county milestones. However he also knows the hard work that went into making those accomplishments, from MGM National Harbor opening to the approval of a new regional medical center, come to fruition. “It’s been a really good year. We’re […]
UPPER MARLBORO – For County Executive Rushern Baker, III, 2016 has been a year of major county milestones.
However he also knows the hard work that went into making those accomplishments, from MGM National Harbor opening to the approval of a new regional medical center, come to fruition.
“It’s been a really good year. We’re checking the boxes on a lot of things that we wanted to achieve,” he said. “I think what we’ve learned this year is that the fiscal choices we’ve made, and the investments, are paying off. Whether it’s TNI (Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative) or whether it’s our EDI (Economic Development Incentive) Fund, and the fact that we streamlined government. We came in here and we tightened our belt and we only invested in the things that would show us a return.”
Baker first took office in 2009, during the Great Recession. In contrast, he said 2016 was, economically, a very strong year for the county. Median household income and the average value of county homes have both increased, he said, and the unemployment rate is around 4.5 percent, which Baker said is one of the lowest in the nation.
Baker attributes commercial development projects happening in nearly every corner of Prince George’s County for that success, and they represent, for him, the fulfillment of a campaign promise.
Using MGM as an example, he said, “It speaks to how we’ve turned the corner. That, really, is about not property tax, it’s about the commercial tax base expanding here. Not just the 4,000 permanent jobs or the 6,000 construction jobs, but the businesses that will come around that area. And the attitude, I think, for the whole region and for the state, that they have about doing business in Prince George’s County. It’s now a reality that we are open for business. It’s not putting up a sign or a slogan but actually the work we’re doing.”
Jim Coleman, chief executive officer of the county’s Economic Development Corporation, said he has heard similar things from businesses, that they are more willing to come to this county.
“County Executive Baker really started all of this. He put some key things in place that first year in office. I call them the tipping points, things that have happened to create quantum change, quantum improvement,” Coleman said. “He’s allowed us to be able to demonstrate that Prince George’s County can handle a $1.4 billion project. We’re ready. We can help you to get the talent, build your building, build the suit.”
Baker said this influx of commercial development was also evident during this year’s budget process, which he felt was much smoother and less controversial than in 2015, because taxes were not raised to accommodate the increased investments in the school system Baker made both years.
“It was not just much smoother than last year, the budget process was the smoothest I’ve ever seen it at any point as county executive,” he said. “To turn around this year and to not only have the smallest gap I’ve ever been faced with, but with options to close it – we were actually able to use the growth of our commercial tax base, combined with projections of MGM, to not only provide additional resources for our K-12 but also our community college.”
The school system – particularly the allegations of abuse and the loss of federal Head Start funding – provided one of the biggest challenges of the year for Baker. He came under fire from some in the county for continuing to support school leadership even after those events came to light.
Baker said while both situations were “disturbing and eye-opening,” neither resulted in a loss of enrollment in Prince George’s County Public Schools. He attributed that to the programs available in the schools, including foreign language immersion and the arts, as well as to tangible data about improving numbers county-wide.
“I think the thing that held us together was the fact that (parents) looked at the numbers in terms of graduation rates, our individual schools’ performance on the PARCC test- we saw some dramatic improvement. Our African American and Latino students are now reading on par with their counterparts in Montgomery County,” Baker said.
In addition to appointing school leadership, the Baker Administration has been involved with the public school system through its TNI program, Baker’s signature initiative designed to improve public safety, education and overall quality of life in the most in-need communities. 2016 saw the first major changes to the program since its launch, with three neighborhoods graduating out, new communities being added, and the creation of a director within the executive branch to oversee TNI.
Baker said many were skeptical of TNI at first, but he is now asked to speak about the program at events for other county leaders across the country.
“They thought it was a gimmick. They thought it was a slogan,” he said. “The fact that not only is it around but it’s expanding to the point where it’s going to be a permanent fixture in the administration, it says to me that the concept of focusing on these areas with everything that the government has to offer- not just police, but also health, education, transportation, the department of the environment and those things- is important.”
Prince George’s has also made progress in the area of health, Baker said. Health disparities have decreased this year, due in part to his administration’s focus on setting up health enterprise zones to provide better access to healthcare providers, he said. A record number of Prince Georgians have also signed up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, which Baker said was an important factor in finally securing the Certificate of Need for the regional medical center.
Expected to break ground next spring, the hospital in Largo will form the basis for the revitalization of that area, Baker said.
“That hospital is not just about bringing quality healthcare, it now is the catalyst for the whole development around downtown Largo,” he said. “We’re going to have a brand new hospital in Largo by 2020. We’re going to have the redevelopment of what is now known as the Boulevard at the Cap Centre. That will be a mixed-use development with new restaurants and a new hotel, and it will become Downtown Largo.”
Baker said he was also pleased with some of the new amenities that went online throughout the county this year, including the new Laurel branch library, a new fire station in District Heights that has begun construction, and the new public safety pier at National Harbor.
“We’re not only going to make sure that people who are going to National Harbor and MGM resorts, but also people who are in the southern part of the county, are safe. If there’s a boating accident, or need, that we’re going to be able to respond there, and to the District and to Northern Virginia,” Baker said. “There’s really no place along the Potomac that you can actually do that. That’s a unique and, I think, a great accomplishment.”
Despite the successes, Baker said there were some disappointments this year from stalled projects: the Purple Line, and the acquisition of the FBI headquarters. On the former, Baker said the delays were disappointing, but the fact that this year Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan finally threw his support behind the project was a plus.
He also saw some silver lining in the FBI situation. Although the decision on where to place the new facility- Prince George’s County or Virginia- has been delayed until March, Baker said fighting for it has drawn leaders across the state together, on the same page, in an almost unprecedented way.
“Our going after the FBI is the only project that I can remember, at least in my almost 30 years in public service, where the entire state is behind the sites in Prince George’s County,” he said. “That’s never happened. We’re usually in competition within the state of Maryland.”
“I hope next year we can make the FBI announcement,” Baker added. “It’s a fitting crown jewel for this county.”