First in a two-part series

Back in the early 1990s, when Kent Menser was the commander of Fort Meade and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were still part of an unforeseeable future, there wasn't much heavy-duty security at the military base.

Local traffic regularly passed between Odenton and Laurel by way of Mapes Road, straight through the center of the installation.

Today, the base, located in Anne Arundel County just south of the Howard County line, is far more closed off, hidden behind a large fence with perimeter gates and security checkpoints.

Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

But as Menser recently put it in his latest, dual role as executive director of the Howard County BRAC Office and co-coordinator of the Fort Meade Regional Growth Management Committee, "the fence is not really a fence in many respects."

Indeed, while Fort Meade, which houses the National Security Agency, has never been more isolated from a security standpoint, its impact on the surrounding region has never been larger.

Especially since the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act came into effect and the federal government began shifting entire agencies to the 5,000-acre base, including the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Defense Media Activity headquarters, Fort Meade has become an economic engine that has helped the region — and Howard County — weather the nation's economic downturn.

"Clearly BRAC and Fort Meade have been not just a buffer in the downturn, but have been a real mecca of economic growth," said Morris Segall, president of SPG Trend Advisors, an economic and capital markets research and consulting firm in Baltimore that has kept an eye on the growth through sister company Sage Policy Group.

And, as the downturn drags on, the base's role is likely to continue to grow, Segall said.

"With the influx of workers, civilian contractors, over the next few years, jobs will be created, helping the entire Fort Meade area," he said.

By the numbers

Despite not being located in the county, the military installation is already the single largest employer of Howard County residents, with more than 10,000 employed, according to Menser, who moved from Fort Meade to Owen Brown with his wife, Arlene, in 1993, just after leaving his post at the base.

It has 98 partner agencies and tenants, Menser said, and directly or indirectly supports about 170,000 jobs in the region, including many defense contractors.

For every new job added through BRAC, more than two new contractor jobs off the base have typically been created at companies all around the region, Menser said. According to County Executive Ken Ulman, Howard County has already attracted more new defense contracting companies than any other jurisdiction in the region, a trend he expects to continue.

And while BRAC, which officially concluded in September, may have marked a turning point for the base, it represents just one part of the overall changes that are causing the base to expand, Menser and others said.

"We have never just kept BRAC in a bubble by itself," said Chad Jones, a Fort Meade spokesman. "BRAC was just one step in an overall transformation of the installation."

Since 2005, Fort Meade's workforce has expanded from 34,000 employees to 56,000 employees, with BRAC accounting for just 5,800 of the 22,000 new positions, Menser said.

While BRAC brought 1.3 million square feet of new space to the base, some estimates show that coming changes, including growth of the NSA-led Cyber Command headquarters, are expected to bring another 5.6 million square feet of new space, he said.

As an indicator of what that means in terms of the base's physical footprint, the base golf course has already lost many of its 36 holes and other amenities — the new DMA headquarters was built on the driving range — and probably will lose more in coming years, Jones said.

"As big as BRAC was, certainly infrastructure-wise Cyber is going to be bigger," he said.