FREDERICK – Chris Loysen doesn’t worry about the infectious disease research that goes on at Fort Detrick, whose main gate is just across the street from his gas station.
“I don’t think having Fort Detrick is more or less scary than any other neighbor,” said Loysen, as he watched a steady stream of cars drive up West Seventh Street to the fort’s entrance. “I would take more of it.”
It is a common sentiment when people in Frederick are asked about the fort: Not only are neighbors not overly worried by the biological research that goes on at the base, they are glad for the jobs and business it brings the area.
“It’s been a good neighbor,” Loysen said.
Measured in terms of dollars and cents, it’s been a very good neighbor. The 1,200-acre fort is the largest employer in Frederick County, with about 7,800 civilian and military employees. Army officials estimate that the fort — and the dozens of military and civilian government agencies that have facilities there — funnels an estimated $500 million a year into the local economy.
That has helped drive the “biotech corridor” along Interstate 270 between Frederick and Washington.
Local officials hope the size and diversity that make Fort Detrick so valuable to the county will also make it valuable to the Pentagon — too valuable to target in the upcoming round of base closures.
“Well if Detrick closes, they’re going to close every base in the country,” said John Lynn Shanton, a board member for the Fort Detrick Alliance, a community group seeking to raise awareness of Fort Detrick and to promote it.
Founded in 1931 as an airfield, the fort has been a center of biological research for more than 50 years. Its mission included offensive biological warfare development for more than two decades, until President Nixon outlawed the development of bioweapons in 1969.
Today, Fort Detrick is a center for government biomedical research, housing the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease, the National Cancer Institute-Frederick, the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency, and more than two dozen other tenant organizations.
The fort is “very important. It’s really helping to drive biotech — it’s growing throughout the state,” said Kenneth Busz, president of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce.
And the fort itself is scheduled to grow again with the development of a new interagency biodefense campus. It will include the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, a 160,000-square-foot facility managed by the Department of Homeland Security that will include biosafety level 4 facilities, which handle the most dangerous pathogens.
The continuing development and expansion of facilities on Fort Detrick has given many members of the community reason to be optimistic about the base’s future.
“I think that the diversified missions of Fort Detrick isolate it” from the threat of closure under the Base Realignment and Closure list expected in May, said John J. Fieseler, executive director of the Tourism Council of Frederick County.
“We’re very confident,” said Busz, noting the development of the new Homeland Security lab. “That wouldn’t happen if the fort were in any danger of closing.”
“9/11 I think, helped secure Fort Detrick’s fate, in a good way,” he said.
Fieseler said that you can “never predict for sure what will happen, but I think they are positioned to be pretty well insulated.”
“There’s been longstanding partnership between the community and the fort,” Fieseler said. He described the relationship between Detrick and Frederick as “very symbiotic.”
Col. John E. Ball, garrison commander at Fort Detrick, agreed.
“Fort Detrick has had a very positive impact on the Frederick community,” Ball said. “We want to continue with the positive impact.”
Ball said he is optimistic that the fort will not be hit in the upcoming round of BRAC. But with “such a sizeable investment going into the installation,” he said, it is “relatively easy to be optimistic.”
In the last round of BRAC, not only did Fort Detrick escape closure, it added about 1,000 personnel, both military and civilian, when nearby Fort Ritchie was closed.
All of which is fine with Loysen, who stood at the pumps at his Texaco station and pointed out the Fort Detrick employees who were filling up their cars on a recent afternoon.
He said worries about the bioweapons and dangerous pathogens at Fort Detrick are products of a bygone era, what he calls “an old image that dies hard.”
“There’s stuff you don’t know about. And if you started worrying about it, you’d worry yourself to death,” said Loysen, adding that the he is convinced he has a safe — and good — neighbor.
“So Ebola goes in there,” he said. “Better there than in here.”
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