Shoppers seek quality in Prince George's Co. Residents say they desire local retailers with better selection

September 21, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

The Prince George's County Nordstrom isn't exactly what local shoppers have in mind when they plead for upscale stores.

The company's warehouse in Upper Marlboro supplies its Washington-area stores, but none of them is in Prince George's. Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Talbots don't have stores in Prince George's either.

"I think it has to do with race," County Council member Issac Gourdine said flatly.

"If you can build a store in an area that is predominantly white and African-Americans will come there, the chains don't have to expand to Prince George's," he said.

For years, residents and civic leaders have complained of the snub, and last week it made its way into the campaign rhetoric of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who reiterated her support for National Harbor, a billion-dollar, retail-and-resort center in the county.

"I don't go to a single event in Prince George's County where people don't beg for upscale shopping," she said.

With a population of 780,000, Prince George's is Maryland's second-largest jurisdiction; 60 percent of the residents are black. The average annual household income of $54,000 exceeds both the state and national average.

The county has many retail stores and shopping centers, but residents say it is the quality of those stores and the merchandise within that upsets them. Their anger has been channeled into a boycott of stores outside the county, drawing ++ support from County Executive Wayne K. Curry, Gourdine and Council Chairman Ronald Russell.

"We had a Woodies. We had a Garfinkles. Now all we have is Value City," said Otis Ducker, president of a consulting firm and leader of a grass-roots "shop at home" campaign that began late last year.

Surveys of credit-card data show that more than 40 percent of Prince George's County residents shop in Charles or Montgomery county malls close to the Capital Beltway or at Fashion Center at Pentagon City in Arlington, Va.

"I have some difficulty with the word 'upscale,' " said Ducker, who has lived in Prince George's for 35 years. "If you've had to shop at Woolworth's and all of the sudden you have the money to shop at Kmart, that's upscale to you. What we need is quality shopping."

Using a list of 20 household items, boycotters conducted a survey earlier this year to compare the quality and availability of merchandise in malls in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"The service and quality of products was substandard," Ducker said.

He took his findings to officials at Hecht Co., which has five of its 71 stores in Prince George's.

"We don't want to withhold merchandise from any store, but not all things sell equally," said senior vice president Nancy Chistolini. "It's not decided by county, it's decided by store."

Ducker has handed out hundreds of green, white and black bumper stickers that decry "economic isolation," but he won't get drawn into a discussion of whether Prince George's problem involves discrimination.

"You know what it is and I know what it is," Ducker said. "All I know is it is wrong. If you get me caught up in a racial debate, you derail me from what I want."

A Nordstrom spokeswoman said the retailer's decision not to put a store in Prince George's has nothing to do with race.

"Our No. 1 priority of the company is to have stores in each of the top 50 major metropolitan markets, and we're only half way there," said Carol Gasper. "It's terrific that a community would want a Nordstrom, but we can't put a store in every community."

With stores in Annapolis, Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, Nordstrom has met its goal in the Washington market, she said.

Retail analysts cautioned against concentrating on one store or type of store and losing sight of what caused the problem in the first place.

"There are a lot of thriving areas around without upscale stores," said Deborah Brett, a commercial real estate consultant based outside Princeton, N.J. "You can't just stick a Nordstrom in a mall and call it an upscale mall."

Instead, Brett said, "an upscale shopper looks for the entire shopping experience, with an attractive place to eat and a feeling that your car will not be vandalized when you shop."

Creating that kind of environment would be new ground in Prince George's, which has older malls that have been passed by for renovation.

But things may be changing.

The new president of the county Economic Development Corp. attended the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in May to lobby for Prince George's.

Several projects are in the pipeline in addition to National Harbor: a $40 million expansion of Largo Plaza; a shopping center on Route 301 in Bowie; 760,000 square feet of retail space in Beltsville off Interstate 95; and a retail center near the Greenbelt Metro station.

Pub Date: 9/21/98

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