Regional economic, political, and military leaders gathered Wednesday to mark the end of what they called a highly successful first chapter of Harford County’s Base Realignment and Closure experience.
Noticeably absent from the final BRAC “Town Hall” meeting at Aberdeen High School were local residents, who numbered less than 20 and were outnumbered more than two-to-one by the assembly of staffers and executives from a variety of economic organizations, military personnel from Aberdeen Proving Ground, and local elected officials.
A series of speakers from all three groups highlighted the smooth integration into APG of military organizations transferred from Ft. Monmouth, N.J. and elsewhere, but touched only lightly on the elephant in the room: ongoing traffic concerns which have begun clogging Route 40 and Route 22 at rush hour.
The last in a series of public meetings on the BRAC process came six days before the Sept. 15 deadline set by the Army for the move of thousands of jobs and several major commands to APG. Despite lingering transportation issues, the six-year-long process has been among the smoothest the Army has ever seen, Major General Nick Justice, APG senior installation commander, said Wednesday.
By the Numbers
A portion of the presentation given by Harford County Economic Development Director Jim Richardson follows, outlining many of the key statistics the county claimed BRAC has brought. Among them:
–APG will grow from a $3.5 billion installation to one totaling $20 billion;
–67 percent of the 8,300 employees affected by BRAC relocated with their jobs;
–60 percent of those moving with BRAC chose to reside in Harford County, according to a study conducted by one of the relocating organizations;
–APG is tied with Johns Hopkins University as the state’s third largest employer by number of employees, with approximately 25,000—only the University of Maryland system and Ft. Meade are larger;
–the average household income in Harford County has grown to $84,000 from $73,000.
The boost to the area’s economy will help make Harford County one of the cornerstones of the “Maryland Research Triangle,” running from Ft. Detrick to Naval Air Station Patuxent River to APG, and encompassing Ft. Meade and Andrews Air Force base, said Tom Sadowski, chair of the county-created BRAC Planning Advisory Commission. As California’s technology corridor has long been known as “Silicon Valley” and a similar area around Austin, Texas became known as “Silicon Hills,” Sadowski said BRAC will make Maryland a new “Silicon Bay.”
That change will also reshape Aberdeen Proving Ground itself, as it loses much of what remained of its stationed, uniformed personnel and replaces them with a civilian employee and contractor workforce. Col. Orlando Ortiz, commander of the APG Garrison, said the total number of homes on post at the end of fiscal year 2013 will decline from about 1,006 to 372. Numbers showing the net change in several personnel categories from fiscal year 2003 to fiscal year 2015 are presented below:
Active Military: -258
Reserve Military and Transitional Personnel: +848
Military Trainees and Students: -2,981
Army Civilian Employees: +5,773
Embedded Contractors: +2,430
Other Civilian Contractors: +752
Most major military bases see a rotation of servicemen and women moving through but, Justice said, “just the opposite happened here, you have young soldiers moving out, and a more permanent base of professionals moving in.”
To make BRAC a reality, the Army secured funds totaling $1.3 billion for the construction of 2.8 million square feet of space on APG. Meanwhile, Craig said Harford County invested $300 million in “capital projects” related to BRAC, which he said included the construction of Deerfield Elementary School, Red Pump Elementary School, Bel Air High School, and Edgewood High School as well as the expansion of the Abingdon water treatment plant.
But the expansion and evolution of the county’s transportation infrastructure remains mostly on the drawing board, drawing criticism from at least one local politician. Work has begun on a widening of Route 715 near the APG gate, but has progressed little further than approximately 200 yards of an unstriped, unusable extra lane and a sign promising the expansion’s completion in spring 2013.
Plans were recently announced to widen the intersection of Route 7 and Route 40, but work has not commenced. Expansions of as many as half a dozen other key intersections, including the length of Route 22 between Route 40 and Interstate 95, remain stuck in development.
“I know it’s tough sledding,” said Mike Hayes, the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development’s Military and Federal Adviser. “It’s going to be tough sledding for awhile.”
According to Richardson, a total of $57 million was secured for highway and transit projects, including $40 million from the state and $17 million by the local congressional delegation. But so far, that money has done little more than scratch the surface of one road.
Harford County Council President Billy Boniface, among those in attendance Wednesday, blamed a mix of a poor economy and political machinations for the delays.
“When BRAC was initiated, government revenues were in a different state,” he said. “Now priorities have shifted, politics are in play. The pie has gotten smaller.”
The development of mass transit remains even murkier. Craig and Richardson said a MARC study has been conducted to assess local needs, and there are plans for both an expansion of the Aberdeen station parking lot, and additions to MARC service over the next few years which would increase options for commuters to Aberdeen. There are also hopes of creating a mixed-use development near the station which would combine retail, commercial, and residential space. But on all of these, no real progress seems imminent.
Currently, only one northbound morning train from the Baltimore area stops at Aberdeen, arriving at 7:42 a.m. In the afternoon, only two southbound trains stop at that station: a pricey Amtrak ride departing at 5:19 p.m. and a later MARC train at 6:33 p.m.
APG began offering a government-run shuttle in early April to meet each train, but its efficiency and the extent of its use is unclear, and it remains the sole non-private option for reaching the installation’s main gates.
But there are other, deeper issues than simply how long the new APG employees may be stuck in traffic. Nearly all of those employees will be highly educated professionals, holding jobs which require specific training. While county figures show the local unemployment rate has hovered at about 2 percent below the national average, many of those under- and unemployed are not currently in a position to claim a BRAC-related job.
A handout at Wednesday’s meeting made the point directly with a frequently asked questions section including the simple request, “Can I still get a job?” The answer notes that, “Many of these positions will require a bachelor’s degree and a security clearance; all will require U.S. citizenship.”
Long-term, Sadowski said BRAC planners have partnered with local high schools to create magnet programs such as the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School and the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Program at Joppatowne High School. He said that those programs were direct efforts to try and interest students in the types of skills they would need to land jobs at APG.
Craig and Richardson said that a main focus of the BRAC private-public partnership in the near future would involve providing opportunities for workers to earn an advanced degree without leaving the area. Richardson pointed to several other successful regional technology areas which drew from advanced programs at nearby universities, such as the proximity of Stanford University to Silicon Valley.
Not all jobs created by BRAC will be at APG—the secondary economic effects of a highly-paid new workforce have long been touted as an important part of the county’s expected windfall. But the issue was not raised by the speakers at Wednesday’s program.
“I think the market finds a way,” Sadowski said.
The transportation problem and the need to gear the local population toward claiming high-tech jobs at APG remain ongoing concerns, Craig said, adding that the arrival of the Army’s deadline for BRAC was only the start of years of further work and partnership—leading up to the Army’s next round of BRAC decisions coming in 2015.
“We’re actually at the end of the beginning,” he said. “It’s like a marriage, it begins after you walk up the aisle and say, ‘I do.’ Sept. 15 is our wedding day.”