Kaiser, federal agencies set to expand in metro area

Health-care firm Kaiser Permanente and the federal government both have major plans to expand in the Baltimore metro area, which could mean hundreds of new jobs as the region tries to dig itself out of a deep recession.

Kaiser signed a lease for a 40,000-square- foot building in Howard County, the landlord said Tuesday. Kaiser, which intends to widen its footprint in Maryland, said it hasn't yet "finalized" how it will use the space. But St. John Properties, its landlord, said the plan is for a 300-job call center in the Maple Lawn space.

"They should be up and running by Jan. 1," said Jerry Wit, a senior vice president with the commercial real estate firm.

The federal government, meanwhile, is looking for nearly 200,000 square feet of office space in Baltimore County so two agencies there — the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Social Security Administration — can expand.

The job impact isn't clear, though it could be sizable. The amount of space the agencies want could hold about 800 workers. At least some, however, will be relocating from the agencies' headquarters buildings in Woodlawn rather than coming in newly hired.

One of the three buildings being sought is needed by Oct. 1 because of health care reform, said the U.S. General Services Administration, which helps federal agencies lease offices. The other two are needed next year.

The various expansion plans brought cheers from leaders in Howard and Baltimore counties.

"Three hundred jobs — that's good news in any economy, but that's great news now," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, referring to St. John's understanding of Kaiser's plans. "Like everyone in the country, we've had a tough couple of years, but we really do see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Said David S. Iannucci, Baltimore County's director of economic development: "It looks like we're right in the … epicenter of the implementation of national health care reform. It is an exciting opportunity."

A call center in a ritzy development in Howard County — rather than a cheap urban or rural outpost — would be surprising, said economist Richard P. Clinch. A federal expansion in Woodlawn is not, he said.

"You have a cluster of government services and businesses in Woodlawn," said Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "You're close enough to Washington to be still part of the national capital region, but you're far enough to not pay the premium for real estate and workers."

The number of new hires planned for the new government space is unclear. The General Services Administration said the Social Security Administration needs 65,000 square feet of space for expanded operations, including a new national center to hear appeals about denied disability benefits.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services needs two 65,000-square-foot buildings, one for a mix of current employees and new hires and the other for current employees leaving the Woodlawn headquarters to make way for new health-reform hires.

Christian S. Johansson, the state's secretary for business and economic development, said the federal government remains a key engine for Maryland. "A number of federal facilities are adding jobs," he said.

Iannucci doubts that Woodlawn has enough existing office space to accommodate the federal needs, though some sites have room for additions.

But across the region, there's no shortage of space going wanting for tenants. The Baltimore metro area's office vacancy rate was 14.5 percent during the first three months of the year, up from 12 percent a year earlier, according to real estate information firm Delta Associates.



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