Tourism among the few bright spots in 2009
Recession, foreclosures, bankruptcies took their toll
Throughout 2009, Prince George's County continued to feel the sting of the recession that began in late 2007, but glimpses of an upturn started to emerge toward the end of the year.
Amid the record-high wave of home foreclosures, bankruptcies and still-delayed housing and commercial developments, the county's tourism industry stood out as a glimmer of prosperity.
County tourism tax revenues grew to $44 million in 2009 from $37.7 million in 2008, despite Maryland's overall 2.3 percent decrease in tourism revenues, according to state information. County businesses were boosted especially by the inauguration of President Obama, which generated $170 million for the state including $16.1 million for just hotels with a significant portion going to Prince George's hotels.
National Harbor, the $4 billion tourism resort in Oxon Hill, also made news when it signed an $11 million deal with The Walt Disney Co. in May. Disney plans to build one of its 500-room resort hotels in National Harbor, adding to the riverside resort's 3,000 hotel rooms, including those in the $1.1 billion Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. Gaylord National brought in $62.5 million in revenues for the quarter ended June 30, making it the only hotel in the Nashville, Tenn., company's chain to post higher revenues in the second quarter. Gaylord opened in National Harbor in 2008.
Foreclosures and bankruptcies
But tourism's success did not extend to many other sectors, especially as the county's foreclosure rate remained the highest in the state, with one filing per 153 households in November, according to RealtyTrac.
The collapse of the housing market took its toll on both the construction and real estate sectors. It also spawned another industry of sorts: mortgage fraud.
Perhaps the most prominent scheme was headed by Jennifer McCall of Fort Washington, who was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison and ordered to pay $16 million in restitution, after spending millions on personal expenses such as furs, jewelry and an $800,000 wedding. McCall was the CEO of the Metropolitan Money Store in Lanham, the main business front behind the scheme. Nine others have pleaded guilty in connection with the scam.
The recession slammed many county businesses, forcing several into bankruptcy, including Ritz Camera, the owners of Rosecroft Raceway and TVI Corp.
Ritz Camera CEO David Ritz managed to spare the company from liquidation after the Beltsville retail chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March. He and RCI Acquisitions purchased the company in July, reducing the chain's stores from 375 to 163 at most. Ritz also closed 400 camera shops and all 130 of its Boaters World stores. Besides the popular switch to digital photography that has eaten into many camera stores' film processing and printing revenues, Ritz in its filings cited an unfavorable market for its boating supply sector.
Rosecroft's financial troubles were exacerbated by the Fort Washington harness track's $1.24 million dispute with Maryland breeders and horsemen over it simulcast license. The Maryland Racing Commission yanked the license in June, but Cloverleaf Enterprises then the parent of Rosecroft went to county court in May and won the rights to the signal for the Kentucky Derby and limited thoroughbred races, provided Cloverleaf post a $2 million bond. Cloverleaf posted $500,000 at the time.
Around the same time, Rosecroft was filing for bankruptcy protection, which ultimately resulted in the decision to sell the track to developer and previous Rosecroft owner Mark Vogel for $10.5 million in July. The racing commission has not approved the sale. The bankruptcy was coupled with Cloverleaf's $20 million suit against Maryland and out-of-state horsemen for breach of contract regarding its simulcast agreements and another legal battle to stay a commission hearing on its simulcast rights during its bankruptcy proceedings. Although Cloverleaf won the latter ruling, a judge denied the company's lawsuit against the horsemen.
TVI of Glenn Dale, which provides emergency equipment and shelters for first-responder personnel, filed for bankruptcy protection in April, citing the floundering tent business of subsidiary Signature Special Event Services; poor decisions by prior management; and a $30 million debt to BB&T. The court approved the company's reorganization plan in early December, which will involve merging TVI's subsidiaries including Signature in Eldersburg and Safety Tech International in Frederick.
Prince George's also bid goodbye to Integral Systems, a Lanham satellite provider that had operated in the county for 15 years. Integral moved to Columbia in May, taking its 250 employees.
Also this year, Beltsville solar energy company SunEdison was acquired for $200 million by MEMC Electronic Materials of St. Peters, Mo. On the other hand, Bowie informatics company MedAssurant acquired Catalyst Technologies of Snellville, Ga.
Many county businesses are also looking toward green technology next year, after enabling state legislation was adopted allowing the county council to establish tax incentives for green companies. Green business networking events kicked off throughout the county, while county officials worked to woo Enviromotive Inc., a green technology boating company, to its foreign trade zone.
In other news this year:
-The county planning board approved the detailed site plan for Konterra Town Center East, a 2,220-acre mixed-used development in Laurel.
-County taxi drivers launched a two-day strike in November in response to the county council's lack of action regarding cab license reform.
-Although county businesses prepared for the worst from the H1N1 flu virus, most reported little impact from the pandemic.
-Abe Pollin, the Bethesda owner of the Washington Wizards and the visionary behind the $16 million Capital Centre in Largo, died last month.
-Rhonda J. Tomlinson of Columbia became the first black person to chair the Baltimore-Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce in Laurel.
-Toby Bozzuto continued the family tradition, rising from executive vice president of Bozzuto Development Co. in Greenbelt to president.
-The County Council rejected a proposal to build a 24,000-seat stadium for the D.C. United soccer team.