Donald Fry: BRAC growth no longer a future event – it’s happening now

By Donald C. Fry

For five years we’ve been talking about federal base realignment and closure (BRAC) and the impact of the thousands of jobs that will be coming to Central Maryland, primarily at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) and Ft. Meade, and the thousands more that they will create.

In Harford County, the BRAC influx has begun in earnest. Today, there is an advanced contingent at Aberdeen Proving Ground of about 1,800 employees from elsewhere working at the base.

But that’s just a trickle, compared to the torrent of more than 7,100 more Army and civilian employees who will be relocating to APG between now and March 2011.

To put that number into perspective, that’s the equivalent of a Fortune 500 company the size of Constellation Energy moving its entire Maryland workforce into Harford County in the next 10 months.

At a May 25 event hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee, representatives from the military, defense contractors and economic development agencies offered updates on BRAC progress at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The largest new campus at APG, a nine-building complex where more than 7,500 of the relocated military and civilian employees will work, is 92 percent complete. The campus’ 2.8 million square-feet of facilities will house the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance team (C4ISR), which includes the Army Research Institute.

The C4ISR campus accounts for more than 80 percent of the $1 billion Army investment in new facilities at APG to accommodate BRAC. Construction of four additional BRAC-related buildings is underway. All but one are slated for completion by July 2011. More than $47 million in on-base road and gate facility infrastructure improvements will be completed by December.

While base preparations are on schedule, the changes at APG will have a significant impact outside the gates on the region between Baltimore City and southern Pennsylvania and Delaware, says Col. Andrew B. Nelson, deputy garrison commander for transformation at APG. He notes that BRAC-related expansion at APG will generate 8,000 new commuters.

“We’re working hard with the state in order to make sure that the entire region is ready,” said Nelson.

Although state and local officials declare readiness for BRAC, it’s obvious, however, that significant transportation issues remain to be addressed.

Officials directly involved with BRAC operations at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Ft. Meade all cite transportation “challenges” ranging from improving roads to strengthening commuter rail service.

At APG, the State Highway Administration has committed $42.6 million to upgrading a key intersection at Md. 715 and U.S 40. But Col. Nelson notes that seven other priority intersections near APG, that would cost more than $100 million to improve, are currently unfunded.

BRAC transportation challenges are a perfect example of why the Greater Baltimore Committee has been stressing the need for significant state transportation funding increases.

“We’re working with the State of Maryland, the Defense Department, and the community at large to help us find resources and ways to help us improve that infrastructure,” says Col. Nelson.

APG is also working with the state on various strategies to reduce peak congestion. Options include car pooling, flex hours, teleworking, commuter rail and express buses. The Amtrak and MARC rail lines running adjacent to APG’s gates create good potential to exploit commuter rail options, says Col. Nelson, “but we’ve got to get commuter schedules and train routes and new bus routes established to support mass transit opportunities.”

Officials cite similar transportation funding challenges at Ft. Meade, where BRAC on-base job growth of up to 10,000 military and civilian workers is projected. It’s unlikely that any major BRAC-related improvements to state roads near the facility will be completed by fall 2011, according to a February 2010 report by the Fort Meade Regional Growth Management Committee.

The report projects 30 to 45-minute rush-hour backups on Md. 295, Md. 32, and Md. 175. “The State Highway Administration has proposed no immediate roadway or transportation systems management action steps that might improve the fall 2011 outlook,” the report states.

State transportation officials concede that efforts to address BRAC-related highway improvements and mass transit issues are significantly behind, citing recession-induced funding deficiencies.

Of course, the nationwide economic downturn is something that is beyond the state’s control. But, with Maryland suffering the effects of a brutal recession, federal base relocations are providing our state with the kind of unprecedented, once-in-a-generation opportunity for growth that economic developers everywhere dream about.

When the entire BRAC deployment is complete, Aberdeen Proving Ground will become the state’s fourth largest employer. Fort Meade is currently Maryland’s second largest employer and will become the state’s largest employer as a result of BRAC.

In Maryland we tend to be skeptics. We don’t believe things until we actually see them. It’s clear that BRAC is no longer something that will happen in the future. It’s already here, and in the next 10 – 16 months there will be an influx of new jobs and employment to our state that we can all benefit from, if we’re ready.

All of us involved in supporting BRAC must ensure that our objective is not to simply “make the best” of a challenge to accommodate newcomers, but to “make the most” of a chance for everyone to grow and thrive in Maryland.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Economic development is a contact sport

Despite the recession, bioscience growth still percolates in Baltimore

State stumbles in enacting new education collective bargaining process

Wind power has potential in Maryland, but solar emerges as early renewable option

It’s not good to be clueless in cyberspace

Amid fiscal shuffle, Maryland lawmakers pass measures to spur business growth

Thankfully, Baltimore leads with substance over style in luring Google

Leave damaging transportation provisions out of the budget

Amended budget continues recession-induced fund shifts and stimulus rescue

General Assembly setting stage for combined reporting push in 2011

Wrong timing for proposal to change Baltimore City school board

Baltimore City isn’t alone in facing pension funding challenges

A government investment program that delivers

Proposed transportation fund raid — a bad habit continues

Where’s the outrage over crime?

Small business is where innovation lives