Donald Fry — Aberdeen Proving Ground: Maryland’s newest economic powerhouse

By Donald C. Fry

In any prolonged conversation these days with Jim Richardson, Harford County’s executive director of economic development, sooner or later he will get around to the ENIAC.

What’s that, you ask?

ENIAC, which stands for “Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer,” was the nation’s first general-purpose electronic computer. After being developed by a team of University of Pennsylvania engineers, it was turned on in July 1947 at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) in Harford County, and operated continuously there until October 1955.

Richardson’s point is intriguing. “We gave birth to cyber,” he says. “So why didn’t we become Silicon Valley?”

Good question. The answer is both complicated and moot today. But, with the development of a critical mass of IT and cyber-security resources in the central Maryland corridor, particularly between the burgeoning Aberdeen Proving Ground and Ft. Meade, our state has a major opportunity to get it right this time.

Harford County has a close-up view of the business development potential that BRAC-related movement of jobs and technology expertise has spawned. Ft. Meade has experienced the same effect, with BRAC relocations and the establishment of the nation’s cyber-security command at the facility in Anne Arundel County.

In Harford County, the transformative impact of BRAC relocations is remarkable, Richardson told Greater Baltimore Committee leaders recently.

It has resulted in the construction of 2.8 million square feet of new facilities at APG. Most will be associated with the relocation of Army Team C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) from Monmouth, New Jersey, which moved into a new 1.5 million square-foot facility in August 2010. The team is also occupying another 1.0 million square-feet of new and renovated space.

Other new APG facilities include:
• 526,000 square feet of new construction at the APG Edgewood site for the Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense. Completion is expected in 2013.
• 142,000 square-feet of new construction for the Army Test and Evaluation Command.
• 75,000 square feet of new construction at APG Edgewood for the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense.
• 35,000 square feet of new construction for an Army Research Laboratory facility to house mobility-related research and technology development.

How dramatic is the impact of all of this? Prior to BRAC, the base generated $3.5 billion in economic activity annually. Now, the base generates $20 billion in economic impact. Seventy-six new defense contractors have moved into Harford County, which is now home to 104 military contractors, according to Richardson.

Aberdeen Proving Ground has become Maryland’s newest economic powerhouse.

By 2015, the base will be tied with Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System as the state’s third largest employer, generating 25,000 jobs. BRAC relocations moved 8,300 new jobs to the post and will generate as many as 10,000 new jobs for off-post government contractors. Ft. Meade is Maryland’s largest employer, with more than 40,000 jobs.

Technology is a central focus at today’s APG. Units on the base are characterized by a highly-skilled workforce in areas including technical and medical research, development and engineering, applied chemistry and biology, communications, and information technology. This same technology focus is reflected in defense contractor workforces off the base.

Maryland needs to move aggressively to leverage this region chock full of technology expertise into maximum potential for business development.

What will it take? For starters, Maryland must make sure that it takes care of the infrastructure needs of this economic engine, particularly when it comes to transportation.

BRAC relocations are generating up to 12,000 new daily commuters to and from APG, but state work on off-post road improvements to accommodate the significantly increased level of traffic is lagging.

The State Highway Administration committed $43 million to upgrades of MD 714 and U.S. 40. However, more than $100 million in needed construction at other priority intersections remain unfunded. “BRAC was announced five years ago, and we just started the main intersection outside the main gate last month,” Richardson says.

Also, Maryland needs better rail connections between northeast Maryland, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Richardson suggests that the limited MARC rail commuter service between Aberdeen and Baltimore dampened what could have been a larger influx of residents to the city, where only 2.5 percent of workers whose jobs relocated to APG decided to live. “We could have put a lot more people into Canton if we had more trains to Aberdeen,” he says.

It’s also critical that a stronger higher education presence be established in Harford County to support workforce development for APG, where jobs increasingly require bachelors, masters, or Ph.D. degrees. It’s important to provide opportunities to obtain college degrees without leaving the region, Richardson said. He suggested working to develop a strategy similar to science and technology region models in other states, including North Carolina, Alabama, and California, where graduate-level education plays a central role in economic development and job creation.

If Maryland seeks to build on its burgeoning defense-driven technology assets in the Central Maryland corridor, the next round of BRAC will be critical. Our state must prove to the Department of Defense that it is “Maryland at the Ready,” Richardson says, noting that it will face stiff competition for facility locations from competitors elsewhere.

For instance, Huntsville, Alabama, will be a major competitor to APG, and San Antonio, Texas, will compete aggressively with Ft. Meade for defense facilities, he warns.

We are just now beginning to grasp the incredible economic development opportunities that BRAC is bringing to Central Maryland. It’s critical that our state’s leaders recognize that, if we want to keep these substantial assets and build on them, we’ve got some work to do.

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

Recent Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Baltimore region endures recession losses, but drives state’s modest jobs comeback

State web site seeks business feedback on regulations

Job-creation impact of transportation gets lawmakers’ attention

Sluggish growth forecast for Maryland not a recession, but is it ‘okay?’

Mobility: the ultimate jobs issue

Tech jobs are here, more are coming, but can we fill them?

Breaking free of transportation funding limbo in D.C. and Annapolis

The Grand Prix’s lessons

Maryland jobs data show July gains, sobering long-term reality

Quake serves as reminder about transportation

Maryland funding for DBED lags behind competing states

Opportunity for Baltimore looms from Panama