By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun
September 11, 2011
The restaurants around Fort Monmouth in New Jersey used to be packed. Now that lunchtime crowd gathers 150 miles to the southwest, in Aberdeen.
Javier Rodriguez, who just relocated to Aberdeen Proving Ground last month, was struck by the familiar feeling the mass migration has created in his still-unfamiliar new home.
"I went out to lunch with a couple of my co-workers … and it was exactly how I remembered it when I first started at Fort Monmouth," said Rodriguez, 33.
The national reshuffling of military bases that has brought thousands of jobs to Maryland hits a key milestone this week: It's officially done.
The workers who chose to relocate are here. The hundreds of moving trucks, laden with computers, documents and lab equipment, have come and gone. The glassy $4 billion dollar complexes — at Aberdeen, Fort Meade, Fort Detrick in Frederick, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda and Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County — are essentially complete.
But the ripple effects of the base realignment and closure process known as BRAC are just getting started.
Defense contractors still are moving to the area. Retailers are opening new businesses. Builders are erecting apartments and offices. Commuters are battling clogged roads. Schools are educating students about keeping their noses clean so they can one day land the security clearance necessary to qualify for a job in Maryland's now-larger military-industrial complex.
And the federal agencies that moved from out of state are preparing for the next big logistical challenge: replacing potentially thousands of employees in the near future as older workers retire.
What has happened — and is still happening — is more than simply growth.
"This has been a transformation," said Jim Richardson, director of economic development in Harford County, where the number of upscale office parks has multiplied in the last few years from one to six.
About 19,000 jobs, many from New Jersey and Northern Virginia, were moved to five Maryland installations as part of the realignment. The Baltimore region absorbed the largest number, with about 8,000 jobs going to Aberdeen Proving Ground and 5,700 jobs to Fort Meade.
The state projected that by 2015 or so, BRAC would bring 45,000 to 60,000 jobs, counting defense contractors and the businesses — from restaurants to day care centers — that benefit when a community's size and spending power grows.
Mike Hayes, who heads the state's Office of Military & Federal Affairs, said he remains confident the state ultimately will see that level of growth.
Contractors responding to BRAC so far have added about 7,000 jobs that the state knows of — Hayes believes the actual number is higher — and both Harford and Anne Arundel counties are seeing building boomlets at an otherwise slow time for construction.
Add in the substantial non-BRAC growth at Fort Meade — which state economic officials like to do — and Hayes said the job total is already close to the low end of the 45,000-to-60,000 projection.
The expansion of existing organizations at Fort Meade, including the National Security Agency, and new efforts such as Cyber Command have added about 14,000 jobs since 2005, on top of the BRAC effect.
The state always expected that it would take a few years beyond 2011 for all the contractors to follow their agencies, but even so, defense firms' pace of relocation and hiring has been relatively subdued.
Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, said uncertainty about how much the deficit-saddled federal government will have to cut from the defense budget is holding companies back.
But he thinks the base expansions have been an unambiguous economic win for the state, not only in the number but also the type of jobs gained. The new commands are filled with high-tech, high-paying civilian positions in defense communications, electronics and information technology.
"What they're doing is in high demand for the military and for the nation," Clinch said.
The official end of BRAC is Sept. 15, the date all moves must be complete. Hayes said Maryland's installations beat that deadline.
The effort involved was massive.
The Defense Information Systems Agency, the largest of the organizations new to Fort Meade, moved 150 to 200 workers — and all the documents, computers and equipment associated with them — each week between January and July. Trucks with classified information were specially sealed and escorted by a "chase car," said David Bullock, DISA's BRAC executive.
The collection of organizations moving from Fort Monmouth to Aberdeen, the largest of which is the Communications-Electronics Command, needed 809 moving trucks to relocate more than 100,000 pieces of equipment. Lab items. Fabrication hardware. Tactical vehicles. Satellite-terminal antennas. Total moving cost: $103 million.
Early on, the military was concerned that most of its civilian employees would quit or retire rather than move with their jobs to Maryland. Then the Great Recession hit. Workers re-evaluated their plans. About 70 percent of the Fort Monmouth employees ended up accepting the transfer, and the Defense Information Systems Agency says a similar proportion of its workers came along to Fort Meade.
But that still meant thousands of vacant jobs. The Defense Information Systems Agency said it recruited aggressively in Maryland in the last few years. The new Aberdeen commands have openings yet to fill.
"There is still hiring ongoing," said Kent Woods, the Communications-Electronics Command's operations officer.
Some employees awaited the relocation eagerly. Vanessa Lopez of Baltimore, who interned at the Defense Information Systems Agency during college and accepted a job after she graduated in 2007, says her commute to Northern Virginia usually took about two hours — by train, Metro and bus. She figures she would have had to move or quit if the job wasn't slated to move to Fort Meade.
"Now I just drive 30 minutes," said Lopez, 26, a financial analyst. "A big improvement."
Many others, though, were very unhappy — at least initially.
"We came down here kicking and screaming," said Mitch Mayer, an electronics engineer with the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. He and his wife, who also worked at Fort Monmouth, transferred to Aberdeen two years ago.
They took a financial hit selling their home during the housing bust, Mayer said, even with military programs intended to soften the blow. And he's upset about the closure of Fort Monmouth, grim news for the surrounding area.
But life in Maryland has been better than he expected. He and his wife, Liz, enjoy their brand-new house in Northwest Baltimore, the vibrant Jewish community in Pikesville and the variety of restaurants downtown.
"New York has spread out so much, if you wanted to go to the city to an event, you had to drive for an hour or so," said Mayer, 61. "In Baltimore, we hop on the I-83, and we're in town, 10, 15 minutes."
Mayer is one of about 80 BRAC workers who moved to the city and make the 45-minute commute to Aberdeen. Most of the former Fort Monmouth workers have settled in Harford County and points north, according to surveys analyzed by the Chesapeake Science & Security Corridor. But Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that spent the last few years wooing the Fort Monmouth crowd, is hopeful that more newcomers will follow the pioneers.
"They've become our biggest cheerleaders," said Anna Custer-Singh, Live Baltimore's executive director.
But just as the recession persuaded more workers to make the move, it also threw a wrench into the state's plans to widen roads and improve intersections near the affected bases. Revenues fell. Projects were delayed.
"We now see a lot more traffic congestion," said Richardson, the Harford County economic development director. "We identified eight intersections that were critical to traffic movement throughout the corridor. At this point, only one of those intersections has been funded and is under construction."
The Maryland Department of Transportation said work on another intersection into Aberdeen Proving Ground should begin early next year. A real estate developer, meanwhile, is widening part of Route 175 outside Fort Meade.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who heads Gov. Martin O'Malley's BRAC subcabinet, said he realizes commuters aren't happy about the clogs. But he believes the state did all it could, in the face of difficult economic conditions, to prepare for the base realignment.
"We will continue to work toward the infrastructure improvements necessary to support BRAC," Brown said.
Some of the new agencies at Fort Meade have tried to ease road congestion by encouraging workers to telecommute up to three times a week, shift their schedules — employees start their day anywhere from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. — or compress their workweek.
"It really has helped us manage the traffic," said Bert Rice, director of transformation at Fort Meade.
Perhaps the biggest long-term challenge is staffing. Nearly half of Aberdeen Proving Ground's workers are eligible for retirement in about five years, said Gary P. Martin, executive deputy to the commanding general at the Research, Development and Engineering Command in Aberdeen.
Local, state and military officials are looking for ways to funnel more students into science, math and engineering fields so Marylanders can step in when the jobs need filling. And the Fort Meade Alliance, a nonprofit that supports the Anne Arundel County base, developed a security-clearance 101 curriculum to warn children and young adults against youthful misbehavior that could keep them from working for the government or contractors down the road.
"That's one of our most limiting factors, clearances," said Rosemary Budd, president of the Fort Meade Alliance and a vice president at a defense contracting firm.
The periodic BRAC process gives — and it can take away. But local officials are counting on these new jobs staying put. Robert C. Leib, special assistant to Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold for BRAC and education, can't help getting excited when he thinks about the expansion's long-term impact.
"The jobs we're talking about are not going to be outsourced," he said. "They get to stay here. They pay a family-supporting wage. That is our real opportunity."
Where the jobs are
The base realignment effort sent about 19,000 jobs to Maryland installations, with thousands more locating nearby as contractors follow suit and other businesses — from retailers to developers — tap into the new buying power. Here is the breakdown of new jobs on base, which doesn't account for the ripple effect elsewhere:
Aberdeen Proving Ground (Harford County): about 8,000 jobs
Joint Base Andrews (Prince George's County): about 2,300 jobs
Fort Detrick (Frederick County): about 600 jobs
Fort Meade (Anne Arundel County): about 5,700 jobs
Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (Montgomery County): about 2,600 jobs
Source: Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun