WASHINGTON – It was good news last month when Congress officially approved plans to send thousands of defense jobs to Maryland’s two largest military installations, but before the economic boost is toted up, the adjacent communities must find a way to build and pay for infrastructure expansions.
Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County and Anne Arundel County’s Fort Meade are fast-tracking preparations for an estimated total job increase of 7,500, the growth resulting from base closures in surrounding states.
Under the Defense Department’s base plan, the changes — additions of about 2,200 military personnel at Aberdeen and 5,300 at Fort Meade — must be initiated within two years and completed within six. The first deadline is no problem, but six years is a relative sprint considering what is needed to handle the additional thousands in families, businesses and contractors expected to follow the relocated workers.
Fortunately for these areas, the communities anticipated expansion when the latest round of the Base Realignment and Closure process began earlier this year. Both bases were reasonably safe from major losses, since Fort Meade is adjacent to the National Security Agency and Aberdeen Proving Ground is a straight drive on the interstate from Washington.
Securing funding is the foremost, but least certain, task in these early planning stages. The federal government is the biggest money pot available for the expansions, so local municipalities are aiming their best pitches there to ensure minimal impact on state and county coffers.
“The demand on the federal dollar is pretty significant,” said J. Thomas Sadowski, director of the Harford County Office of Economic Development. “That means we have to show how we’re doing things in the most quick and efficient manner.”
The state can reasonably expect a good return on whatever costs it ends up shouldering: Fort Meade and the NSA, together the largest employer in Maryland, contributes $4 billion annually to the state economy, and local officials estimate a $1 billion boost to that figure when the expansion is complete. Aberdeen is estimated to produce nearly $2 billion annually.
A couple of base-friendly road projects have also been in the works. Near the Aberdeen base, state highway officials are nearly finished planning an $83.6 million lane-widening project at the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 24. The expansion was planned apart from the anticipated base growth and groundbreaking on the estimated three-year job is scheduled for next fall.
Business leaders say the project is nice, but that there should be increased focus on the cross-county roads handling local traffic. This is one reason why Wyett Colclasure III and his Aberdeen Army Alliance are funding a study of the region’s looming transportation needs.
“I’m not interested in getting people through Harford County,” Colclasure said, referring to the interstate project. “I’m interested in getting people across I-95 into Aberdeen Proving Ground. Local roads . . . are the roads people will have to travel.”
Looking beyond roads, Sadowski says the expansion also gives Harford an opportunity to beef up its bare-bones public transportation with substantial rail and bus service.
Over at Fort Meade, Route 175, which runs along the eastern border, is another target for expansion. Earlier in the fall, the state’s congressional delegation secured $12.5 million to widen the road that will become an even more important artery into the growing installation. The estimated $100 million road project includes noise barriers around the base perimeter.
Also in the area, local developers are constructing at least 37 new residential areas with 10 or more housing units. The Odenton Town Center, a 1,600-acre site, is a mix of retail and residential developments underway that locals hope will help the area handle an ever-growing amount of services for the population influx of the coming years.
And what about the incoming positions, from closed-down locations in states like Virginia and New Jersey, whose workers refuse or are reluctant to move?
Community advocates are brainstorming incentives, from schools to jobs, to encourage the uncertain. For example, there is talk of establishing a homeland security curriculum at local middle and high schools along with programs aimed at accommodating spousal employment needs.
But a lot of these soft plans will need to harden soon, and leaders in Harford County are giving themselves a July 2006 deadline to have a definitive strategy for the rapid changes, Sadowski said.
“The rubber is now hitting the road.” – 30 – CNS-12-14-05