ABERDEEN – George J. Englesson says Aberdeen “was never, ever a typical military town,” even during times of war.
Even though it is in the shadow of the 72,000-acre Aberdeen Proving Ground, the town sits on a heavily traveled corridor between Baltimore and Philadelphia, making it less isolated than other military installations around the country, for one thing.
But Englesson, the former mayor of Aberdeen, also cannot imagine the proving ground, with its thousands of civilian and military jobs, not being there.
Officials at the proving ground agree.
“We’re all part of the same community and we depend on each other,” said George Mercer, public affairs officer for the post.
The community depends on the post for over 5,000 civilian jobs, and the post depends on the community for much of its social life. Although the post sprawls over 72,000 acres — about half of which are water or wetlands — the 4,732 active-duty military family members that live on or off base depend on neighboring communities for churches, schools and shopping.
Aberdeen is the country’s oldest proving ground, established in 1917 in response to the World War I need to test weapons. The proving ground, which hugs the Chesapeake Bay, has been an essential part of the northeastern corner of the state ever since.
It drives the economy of Harford County, employing more than 11,000 civilian and military workers and contributing more than $400 million in payroll and $500 million in contracts regionally each year, according to county officials.
Which is one reason local officials are keeping an eye out for the list of military facilities recommended for closure or consolidation by the Base Realignment and Closure commission, which is scheduled to be released May 16.
“It would be awful scary,” if the post ever closed down, said William Seccurro, president of the Harford County Chamber of Commerce. “The Aberdeen Proving Ground and all of its tenant occupants there are just critical to the economic engine to not only Harford County but to this region of this state.”
Those businesses range from Englesson’s New Ideal Diner in town to newer big-box stores like Home Depot and Target near the base’s gate.
At the Aberdeen Holiday Inn, general manager Joe Canepa said he is happy to get the post’s business, even though military personnel only pay $75 for a room under rates set by the Defense Department — well below the standard room rate of $114.95.
“They need us for a lot of things and we need them for a lot of things and it’s worked well for a long time,” Canepa said.
Some things have changed: If something were to happen to the proving ground, Canepa said his summer business would not suffer as much thanks to the new Ripken stadium, which is home to the minor league Aberdeen Ironbirds.
But even the newcomer pays homage to the post: The team’s mascot is a jet. Ironbirds spokesman Jay Moskowitz said the Army is a part of the “fabric” of the community.
“They were here long before we were and I hope we’re both here for a very long time,” Moskowitz said.
Mercer said that while the upcoming BRAC is a concern, “it doesn’t do you any good to speculate.” But, he said, “logic would say that with the 68 tenant organizations and a variety of missions,” the post is not likely to suffer.
The proving ground hopes to expand public access with the Government and Technology Enterprise center, which should break ground this spring or late summer, Seccurro said.
The center, which is expected to include 2 million square feet of office space and bring 8,000 jobs to the region in the next eight to 10 years, will make it easier for private enterprises to build and occupy facilities on the post for civilian use.
“We’re investing in new facilities on a regular basis,” said Mercer, who compares the proving ground “not to a city but to an industrial park for the military.”
But it is more than just an industrial park to its neighbors.
Bill Akins worked on the post as a teen. As a Vietnam War vet, one of his benefits is being able to shop at the Commissary and the Post Exchange.
“If it closes down, we’d be in trouble,” said Akins, as he ate lunch at the New Ideal Diner. The East Coast would be “wide open for trouble” without the post there to protect potential terrorist targets like Washington, he said.
Joy Meeks grew up near the proving ground and said she never minded being so close to the weapons testing. Now a resident of Riverside, she regularly brings her three young children to the boardwalk promenade in Havre de Grace.
“I don’t hear negative things about it, other than the bombs,” she said.
Explosions from weapons testing on the post can be heard in neighboring communities, but many consider the booms just a part of natural landscape.
“It’s a nice sound, a little thunder off in the distance,” said Alvin Shayt, who was on the promenade with his wife, Jerry. “The sounds of freedom” make him feel secure.
The only nuisance about living near the military base, Jerry Shayt said, is that “wherever you go there’s too much pornography.”
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