In the Face of a Potpourri of Challenges, Baker Upbeat

Barrington M. Salmon | 3/8/2012, 1:59 p.m.

The laundry list of issues and problems facing residents in Prince George's County is daunting, but County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said last Wednesday that while not a betting man, he greatly favors the county's chances of success.

During the course of a 90-minute Washington Informer editorial board meeting on Feb. 29, Baker (D), acknowledged the range of matters requiring urgent attention, but told staffers that opportunities far outweigh challenges, adding that the county possesses untold potential.

"As bad as our problems are, I wouldn't want to exchange places with anyone else [governing]. We have the greatest potential for growth. Our problems are solvable," said Baker, who assumed office on Dec. 6, 2010. "Prince George's County has the most growth opportunities. Other jurisdictions have maxed-out. Alexandria is landlocked, Montgomery County is built-out and for them, the only place you have left is to go up."

Baker, 53, has spent much of this past year fully assessing the depth of the issues facing him, and an aide said privately that Baker is now fully aware of the extent of the problems wracking the county.

The myriad challenges include closing a $126 million shortfall for FY 2013, bolstering the county's economic fortunes, vastly improving education, continuing to improve public safety, addressing the shortage of affordable housing, and providing housing, substance abuse and mental health services to returning citizens.

Baker, the county's seventh chief executive, said his team's primary focus is on economic development, healthcare and education. And throughout his remarks, he couched all of what he hopes to achieve within the context of a regional approach.

"Our future is tied to the District of Columbia," he said. "We're really the Washington region. I consider the mayor a good friend who understands that we have got to work in partnership and that the work in each area impacts our lives ... the border between us is like the Berlin Wall ... [but] this is a region where you can't operate in a vacuum."

Perhaps the biggest issue on Baker's plate at the moment is how best to bring a casino complex and gaming to the county in ways that will be of maximum benefit to residents.

"I was neutral on casino issues and didn't want it when I was in the Legislature. I was pretty consistent in voting against slots because I thought it was premature," said Baker, who served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1994-2003. "I'm not supportive of gaming but with 57 percent in favor of slots, I wanted something without a negative impact."

"I want to spur more growth and lessen the impact of where I want it [the casino] to go."

Baker has come up against powerful interests, including Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert & Prince George's counties), who Baker said wants casinos and slots in Prince George's County and linked them to Baker's proposal to develop and build a regional medical complex.

Baker said he sought to settle on a plan he could support, and envisions a high-end, $1 billion casino complex at National Harbor which sits on the banks of the Potomac River.