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BRAC brings boost, but less than expected, for many in Harford

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The Army's Base Realignment and Closure process is officially drawing to a close, and the impact from BRAC has been something of a mixed bag for Harford County, especially with the rocky economy.

Most local stakeholders seem pleased with the economic boost BRAC has provided so far, but they also say the process has not necessarily revolutionized life in Harford County — at least not yet.

While there has been considerable movement of civilian jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground and to office parks within a few miles of the post where additional defense contractors have congregated, some of the other economic and social impact on the county appears to be muted.

Harford, for instance, remains mired in a four-year housing construction slump, one that mirrors the national economic slowdown.

With the exception of roads leading to the gates at Aberdeen Proving Ground, dire predictions of clogged highways from one end of the county to the other haven't materialized, despite clear statistical evidence that more people are working inside Harford County than was the case five years ago.

Nor are the local schools seeing any influx of additional students directly from BRAC; to the contrary, the county's public school enrollment has been slowly declining.

While many in the private sector say they aren't sure BRAC has so far had the impact they were led to believe it would, some in local government say the greatest impacts are yet to come.

Implementation is here

One thing is known, and that is Sept. 15 is the official federal deadline for the BRAC relocation process to be completed at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Still, there is some wide variance locally as to just what this means.

"In that regard, I think you would find if you talk with people on the installation [APG], BRAC is done," Karen Holt, regional BRAC manager for the Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor, said. CSSC is the name adopted by Harford County and other local stakeholders in the BRAC process.

"I think it [BRAC] was done under budget and ahead of schedule, in terms of the construction that happened on Aberdeen Proving Ground," Holt added.

But that doesn't mean the impact from all things BRAC will stop in September.

"Our view has been that implementation means we are just beginning to see the impact from BRAC," Bob Thomas, spokesman for Harford County government, said Friday.

While Thomas said some people outside government may feel they haven't seen a huge economic push from BRAC since the relocation process began in 2005, "if you go onto Aberdeen Proving Ground, you can clearly see it's a far different place from what it was six years ago."

"It must be noted that BRAC officially begins next month in mid-September — it doesn't end then," he wrote in a later e-mail. "Harford County, especially APG, will see more defense contractors and employees relocating to the area as BRAC officially unfolds."

Traffic issues just beginning

As Thomas pointed out, one impact from BRAC yet to be completely realized, on both sides of the Aberdeen Proving Ground fence, is traffic.

Many who work on the post proper have cited more traffic congestion on the main roads leading into APG, Routes 22 and 715, despite county and state efforts to improve flow along the latter.

Thomas said the county government has been well aware of the potential traffic issues from the beginning.

"It should be noted that the BRAC Planning Commission [BPAC], under County Executive David R. Craig, had an action plan in place since 2006 to address transportation needs," he wrote. "The first intersection [MD 715/40] just started construction with Phase I of the second intersection [MD 7/US 40/MD 159] to start in the next month. Those funds were secured by our federal delegation. We have seen increased traffic and are waiting for traffic counts from the State of Maryland to be reported back to the County."

"There are no surprises on what we are seeing and is part of the modeling efforts that the county and the Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor asked to have done to show the impact of increased traffic in 2015," Thomas continued. "As school opens there will be additional delays since new BRAC relocatees will peak in September and October."

Thomas credits his boss, Craig, with leading a local push to have eight critical intersections addressed near APG.

"Due to the state budget long-term projects weren't addressed by MDOT," he continued. "The state has jurisdiction over most of the roads that are seeing the larger increase in traffic."

"It should also be noted that there are a number of transit options in play, but time delays by the state and limited funding has held those projects back, as well," Thomas added.

He also wrote that "the state has worked on timing of lights and some re-striping of some intersections that requires little funding … Until there is more funding and a push from the state, citizens will need to exercise patience in some of these critical [highway] areas."

Some housing positives

Frederik Archer, president of the Harford County Association of Realtors, said BRAC did not bring as many new homeowners to the county as was originally expected, but it did help Harford's housing market avoid the steep downturn other markets have taken — at least for now.

Archer said more than 3,500 people moved to the area as a result of BRAC, and about 1,200 more are still expected.

That is fewer than the roughly 8,000 he thought would come here.

"To be very honest, we expected more," Archer said last week.

About 25 percent of those moving to Harford from Fort Monmouth, N.J., the federal installation from which most of the new Aberdeen jobs have migrated, are renting, which has proved more beneficial to property managers, Archer said.

"A lot of people in BRAC have decided to rent down here because of the economy. They just haven't been able to sell their property," he said. "It's much more expensive in New Jersey and they are having a much harder time … People are moving out, they are not moving in."

But Archer said the BRAC newcomers have led to positive housing sales in Aberdeen, Havre de Grace, Forest Hill andEdgewood.

Most who have bought homes were looking for a property in the range of $250,000 to $300,000, so more expensive areas did not fare as well, he said. For example, the pricey Fallston market had an 8 percent drop in sales over the past year.

"We have held our own. Right now, Harford County is the place to be going," Archer said. "I think BRAC is a great thing. It still is a great thing. It brought revenue into Harford County, it did increase our sales in Harford County. Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Cecil County was going down."

He noted BRAC "is an ongoing thing" and he expects the impact from it to continue through 2014.

But Archer also expressed concern about the possibility of another recession and what it could mean for the market, noting that 1.2 million homes nationwide are either ready for foreclosure or in foreclosure.

"That is unheard of, and that's only the tip of the iceberg. I don't see us pulling out of this with real estate until at least 2015," he said.

In Harford, "we are doing fine. We are doing much better than I had expected, to tell you the truth," he said. "If we didn't have BRAC, I think we would be in much worse shape … After BRAC is completed, I would expect some of the numbers to go down."

Schools see little

The impact of BRAC on the local education system has not been as clear.

Harford County Public Schools has not been touched by BRAC changes, Chief of Administration Joseph Licata wrote in an e-mail last week.

"We have not experienced a spike in enrollment yet, so as of now, there has been no direct impact to the school system from BRAC," Licata wrote.

Dr. Dennis Golladay, president of Harford Community College, said his institution is largely in the process of preparing for future BRAC impact — since there's been very little impact to date.

"We think BRAC is going to have very positive economic impacts for Harford County and we want to make sure in higher education we are actually adding to that value, that we are serving the post and serving related industries," Golladay said in a phone interview.

The college's enrollment did increase by 7 percent this year, but Golladay said he does not believe much of that is a direct result from BRAC.

"It's hard to tell actually how much enrollment increase is due to the BRAC effect …The military personnel at the post are being reduced," he said. "That kind of population is moving away."

Still, "we are confident that that's going to be replaced by those associated with BRAC," Golladay added.

The college has seen more interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programming, and has launched one major initiative in partnership with APG: the Performance Training Center.

Golladay said the center has offered 19 classes so far for more than 200 students.

Also, the college is getting ready to sign a memorandum of understanding with Morgan State University, in Baltimore, to offer baccalaureate programs in electrical engineering, he said.

"We realize, starting this year, the impact of BRAC could be pretty important in terms of program demand or enrollment numbers," he said.

Job gains, more space

The military shift has brought in plenty of new civilian contractors on post or close by, most notably at places like The GATE (Government and Technology Enterprise) project, which now houses top national companies like Boeing andRaytheon.

The GATE, which is now under control of Baltimore developer St. John Properties, is being developed inside APG's security perimeter under a joint use, enhanced lease agreement with the Army. The developer has already constructed several office/research buildings totaling more than 500,000 square feet and plans several more, plus a commercial center.

There are several other office park projects under development in the Greater Aberdeen area.

Jim Richardson, economic development director for Harford County, said the county has 67 new defense contractors, which does not include the 17 that were already operating in Harford five years ago.

More than 1 million square feet of new space office space, which includes the public and private sector, has either come in or is in the process of coming, he said.

"I think in general, we are seeing what we expected, for the most part," Richardson said. "I think everyone has probably seen a New Jersey or Virginia license plate. We have seen a very positive response. About 65 percent have moved with their job."

The weak economy has brought far more Army employees with their jobs than originally expected.

"I think it's good, because most of those jobs are not entry-level jobs. Much of the experience you only gain on the job, with the Army," Richardson said. "We are seeing a lot of hiring even so, and I think what this will do is it will continue to have a strong mission at APG and will allow the Army to do succession plans to fill those slots."

City's boost mixed

Outside the APG gate, defense-related office park projects like the Corporate Office Properties Trust's North Gate Business Park and Merritt Properties' Aberdeen Corporate Park are being developed inside the Aberdeen city limits.

Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett said he has seen both positive and negative fallout from BRAC.

He thinks the process has generally been what he expected, although he would like to see more commercial impact.

"I was hoping for a little bit more, and I think we are starting to see more of that come," Bennett said. "I was hoping to get more of the support things, like different retail stores and maybe a few more restaurants here and there, but again, my sense is those things are coming and we know of some other things that are coming down the road."

Bennett said traffic has definitely increased, and the improvements and benefits aimed at BRAC were for the federal government, not local communities.

He noted traffic jams at Route 22 have become noticeable, as more people leave the post in the afternoon, and use WestBel Air Avenue through the heart of town as an alternate route.

"There's been a lot of issues with the traffic and it's going to get worse," he said.

But overall, Bennett said he has been pleased with what BRAC has brought, noting that four substantial office parks have moved in or are in the process of doing so.

Consultants, contractors and related businesses have also moved in.

"I think the impact has been very positive, and we have got a lot of new businesses either come in or in the process of moving in," Bennett added.

Office developers busy

Office developers and leasing companies who have built new projects, or are about to build them, along Harford's Route 40 corridor, also seem optimistic about BRAC's influence even as the economy has slowed down.

Manekin LLC is getting set to complete the five-building Water's Edge Corporate Campus at Bata Boulevard and Millenium Drive, in Belcamp.

Tenants of the 295,000-square-foot campus include engineering, information security or defense-related companies like SafeNet, JANUS Research Group Inc., George W. Stephens Jr. and Associates, Inc., Applied Research Associates and Booz Allen Hamilton.

Joseph Bradley, senior sales and leasing associate for Manekin, said the first building was constructed in 2004 because there was no Class A office space in Harford County.

"Then BRAC came along and accelerated the project," he explained. "The impact has been significant on Water's Edge … Defense contractors that are primarily relocating from New Jersey have really focused on Water's Edge as the primary location off base, so we got a head start on some of the other developers."

He said the fourth building was delivered in July and is 70 percent occupied.

"In a slow market, that's pretty good," he said.

Overall, "the Water's Edge Corporate Campus is over 95 percent leased," he said.

The past year, however, has brought significant financial challenges.

"I think the economy clearly has been significantly slower than anyone had anticipated," Bradley said. "Activity was fairly brisk until this year and now there's very limited activity in the market from defense contractors due to uncertain economic times and the federal budget."

Nevertheless, in the future, "we still expect activity," he said.

Louis Boeri Jr., co-director of leasing for Merritt Properties, also hoped the promises of BRAC lie farther ahead.

Merritt is still building its roughly 95,000-square-foot Aberdeen Corporate Park off of Route 22.

The first of five buildings is scheduled to be available for occupancy in February 2012.

"We are a firm believer that base realignment to Aberdeen is going to be a significant economic driver to Harford County for the next 10, 15, 20 years," Boeri said. "As evidence of this, we bought this property last year and plan to put [in] a $40 million investment to grab much of that economic growth"

Boeri said Merritt is already seeing interest from defense contractors, although he would not name possible tenants yet.

"This is a pretty big commitment," he said of Aberdeen Corporate Park.

With the economy again in flux, however, Richardson, the county economic development director, said he is unsure what the latest economic uncertainties will mean when BRAC is taken into account.

"Until we get a better handle on the national picture, the local picture will remain unsettled," he said. "We still don't have the number of private defense jobs we hoped for."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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    There already has been considerable movement of civilian jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground and to office parks within a few miles of the post where additional defense contractors have congregated. Above, a building in the North Gate park just outside the Route 22 gate to APG.

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    Base realignment benefiting Aberdeen Proving Ground has led to a number of new office park developments in Harford County, including The GATE, which is inside the APG perimeter.

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