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.
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.
By 2015, Menser's office is estimating an overall workforce on the base of about 65,000, largely because Fort Meade has a "threat-driven mission" and its role in technology and information assurance will continue to grow, he said.
Locally, Menser's office is projecting that between 2007 and 2015, about 8,800 new job-holders and 5,500 new households will come into Howard County because of Fort Meade growth.
"I don't know if anyone knows at this stage how big Fort Meade is going to grow," he said. "We believe we're probably at a third to a half of overall Fort Meade growth at this period."
Segall agreed, noting that Fort Meade's mission as the "nerve center" of the nation's cyber defense systems is only likely to grow, especially considering the "increased assaults by the Chinese" on cyber networks.
"One of the areas that can't be skimped on, because of the threat from overseas that continues to escalate, is intelligence and cyber warfare and cyber security," he said.
Fort Meade's continued growth will not come without ramifications, including increased traffic and stress on existing infrastructure, from affordable housing to schools capacity. The question of whether the county is prepared to deal with those ramifications is one that has been debated for years.
Specifically, the current inadequacy of the area's transportation infrastructure is a major concern, Segall said.
Overall, however, Fort Meade's growth has been largely positive for the area, Segall and others said.
"BRAC in Maryland has meant more jobs, a stronger economy, and our state's contribution to our national security," Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who chaired Gov.Martin O'Malley's BRAC subcabinet, wrote in emailed statements
"BRAC has had a positive impact on economic development in Howard County. It continues to bring job opportunities to our community that are a good fit for our highly educated technology workers," said Laura Neuman, the county's economic development chief, in an email. "Cyber continues to be a strong opportunity in Maryland and BRAC fits right into that target. The growth of Cyber Command will continue to bring jobs to Maryland."
Those jobs, in turn, will bring smart, educated people to the county, Ulman said.
"What I'm so excited about is the indirect benefits to the region, which are that some of the brightest people in the world work at Fort Meade, and so those are the kind of people who also start new companies when they leave Fort Meade and who pride themselves on education," Ulman said. "Their families, their spouses, their children are highly educated, so that helps our school system and really adds to our value of life here in the county."
Moving forward, the companies who hire those employees will continue to be courted, too, in part through the BRAC Business Initiative, established in 2009 by Ulman, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and Howard Community College President Kate Hetherington to help small and minority businesses in the area better understand what's needed in the defense contracting field.
"We want to make sure that we're connecting the dots with Howard County employees and citizens the best we can," Ulman said.
Menser, praised by Ulman as a "great leader" for the county on all things Fort Meade-related, said he has conducted interviews with more than 2,000 companies interested in the initiative.
In all, Fort Meade's role as a key economic hub for the area has been solidified, Menser said, a fact that is sometimes missed because of the secrecy that surrounds much of the base's mission.
"From a public relations standpoint, there is a lot of new construction on Fort Meade that the typical resident in this area can't see, and people on Fort Meade can't talk about their jobs," Menser said.
"But if this was an automobile plant over there that employed 56,000 people, we'd all know a lot more about its impact on our region."
Next week: Along with jobs, Fort Meade expansion could bring something less desirable: crowded roads and other infrastructure woes.