Band of young mayors focuses on revitalization

Friday, June 30, 2006

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(From left) Bladensburg Mayor Walter James, Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo and District Heights Mayor James Walls Jr. are among the youngest mayors in the state. Bryan HaynesThe Gazette

Cheye Calvo was first elected mayor of Berwyn Heights in 2004. He was 33 and, by his recollection, the youngest mayor in the county.

But then came Adam Ortiz, elected mayor of Edmonston in 2005, at 30. Walter Lee James joined them when he was elected mayor of Bladensburg later that year, also at 30.

By the time James Walls Jr., then 28, was sworn in as District Heights mayor on May 5, Calvo’s thunder had officially been stolen.

‘‘We keep getting younger,” Calvo said. ‘‘Soon it seems a 21-year-old will be elected, at this rate.”

The ages of Prince George’s County’s small-town mayors have dropped dramatically over the past three years, giving the county some of the youngest mayors in the state, and the youngest Maryland mayor, period — Walls of District Heights.

The shift to a younger generation signals a change in demographics as well as a change in outlook toward managing cities. The young mayors, ranging from their late 20s to their 30s, band together on issues like economic development. They say they have less patience for sleepy towns and clamor for rebirth and revitalization.

The young mayors talk to and work with each other. They try to think of how their towns fit in the region, not as independent enclaves competing against each other.

‘‘You can’t just leave it to everyone who’s qualified for the AARP,” Calvo said.

This week, mayors from across the state attended the annual Maryland Municipal League conference in Ocean City. The new guard from Prince George’s sticks out like frosh at a frat party.

‘‘You’re just meeting people and they’re like, ‘Why do you got a mayor ribbon?’” Calvo said. ‘‘It’s sort of a culture shock, because you see how you’re kind of unusual.”

Since Calvo was elected, Berwyn Heights annexed property for the first time in its 110-year history. The town has already gotten funding to start planning for the 13 acres, into an industrial zone.

In District Heights, Walls created an office on economic development and planning. He, too, said the young mayors are set on annexation.

‘‘It’s a new regime that’s coming about in Prince George’s County,” Walls said. ‘‘We’ve had so many years where a lot of mayors, they got in office and stayed in office until they retired or died ... the county got stagnated.”

In Bladensburg, James is working with the Port Towns Community Development Corporation to push redevelopment. His town has floated the concept of a Bladensburg Town Center along Route 450 for years, but only now has the plan developed legs.

Now, the effort to rezone the area for a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly downtown is working through the planning stages at the county level. On the agenda for next year is annexing the Publick Playhouse and other businesses, so the town can start generating more tax revenue for such projects, James said.

Cleanliness and public safety are also priorities for the new group of mayors, he added.

‘‘For us, it’s fresh ideas, the realization of the promise and potential of our communities in Prince George’s County, and it’s a sense of righteous aggressiveness,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz said he was drafted by his neighbors to run in 2005. Since he took office, he has negotiated $84,000 in compensation from the county for residents whose homes were damaged by flooding that knocked out a pumping station last October.

‘‘I love public service,” Ortiz said. ‘‘I’ve always been a researcher or a staffer.”

Ortiz, who used to be John Kerry’s Maryland field coordinator, also has a day job, working at the public policy school at the University of Maryland. The rest of the young mayors have day jobs too, running against the grain of some municipal mayors, who, as Calvo noted, tend to be retired.

‘‘It’s a great hobby,” Calvo said.

Eugene Grant, 39-year-old mayor of Seat Pleasant who was elected two years ago, said it’s time for young leadership.

‘‘This is 2006. Young people see that they have an opportunity to make a difference in their communities,” Grant said. ‘‘And I think that is a very positive and wonderful thing.”

E-mail Judson Berger