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‘A major, major loss’: Closing of Lockheed Martin plant is end of an era for eastern Baltimore County

When the Glenn L. Martin Co. sprang up in Middle River more than 90 years ago, it helped usher in an era of manufacturing prosperity for eastern Baltimore County.

News that Lockheed Martin, the company’s successor, plans to leave the plant within two years means the community is losing an icon, residents say.

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“It’s very sad when you have something that’s been around for nine decades and all of a sudden what we knew growing up is not going to be there,” said Paul M. Blitz, a local historian whose late godmother was a “Rosie the Riveter” at the plant.

Lockheed Martin announced that it would end its manufacturing run in Middle River with plans to shutter the 465-employee operation, moving production of its vertical launch systems and other U.S. Navy warship equipment to a plant in New Jersey by the end of 2023.

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It’s the latest in a series of closures by eastern county manufacturing giants in the past decade. In 2019, nearly 300 full-time employees were laid off as General Motors decommissioned its White Marsh plant. And in 2012, Bethlehem Steel’s closure ended a legacy of Sparrows Point steelmaking dating back more than a century.

Lockheed has signaled that it intends to retain ownership of the Middle River site and is seeking prospective tenants.

The Glenn L. Martin Co. transformed the area, bringing jobs that sparked a housing boom. An Iowa native, Martin purchased more than 1,200 acres in Middle River, opening the first production facility in 1929.

His company produced more than 11,000 planes by 1960, including Navy seaplanes and B-26 Marauder bombers used in World War II, according to the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum, a small museum located at Martin State Airport, which was built originally to serve the Martin plant. The company ventured into missiles, space and electronics manufacturing in the 1950s and stopped producing aircraft in 1960.

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At its height during World War II, Glenn L. Martin employed some 53,000 people. It founded communities such as Aero Acres and Stansbury Estates to house its workers.

In 1961, the company merged with American-Marietta Corp. to form Martin Marietta. Lockheed Martin was formed in 1995 when Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed.

Growing up in the 1960s, “your grandfather or your uncle or your brother or your father were either working at Sparrows Point, GM or Martin’s,” said County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Democrat whose district includes Middle River.

Bevins’ husband worked at the Martin Marietta plant manufacturing long-range Patriot and cruise missiles in the 1980s, she said.

“We have a connection there,” she said. “Many, many people do in the area.”

But it isn’t just about the jobs. It’s also the end of strong relationships that have grown between the defense manufacturer and surrounding neighborhoods, said Jim Hock, president of the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association, a neighborhood that abuts the industrial site.

Lockheed, he said, works with students in Seneca Elementary School’s Science, Technology Engineering and Math program, hosting an on-site community garden for the school. And the company is working to repair the bulkhead of a private boat ramp owned by a 91-year-old Bowleys Quarters resident.

Company officials also have kept nearby residents in the loop about pollution cleanup efforts the company is required to perform at the Middle River complex and Martin State Airport under an administrative consent order with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The company’s departure will be “a major, major loss” to the area, Hock said.

Most of Lockheed Martin’s 465 workers will be offered a chance to relocate or telework, with the plant winding down operations between March and June 2023, the company said. Most of the jobs would be transferred to facilities in New Jersey, while 140 people will be asked to telework, allowing them to stay in Maryland.

The defense contractor also is closing a plant in Marion, Massachusetts, by October next year and relocating hundreds of jobs and its rotary and mission systems operations from Marion to Syracuse, New York.

Blitz, historian for the Heritage Society of Essex and Middle River, said the news was shocking for many in the area.

“This is unfortunately a sign of the times, where we’re no longer a manufacturing giant anymore,” he said.

From 2010 to 2019, the number of total private-sector jobs in Baltimore County grew by 14%, while the number manufacturing jobs declined by 6%, according to Richard Clinch, executive director of the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute.

“There aren’t a lot of jobs for these people to find comparable work” Clinch said. “Maryland is really no longer a manufacturing state, despite Baltimore’s history.”

But the county’s loss hasn’t happened in isolation, given the national decline in manufacturing, he said.

Clinch said that “manufacturing in Maryland has many struggles,” including the high cost of real estate and labor. However, as the state lost traditional manufacturing, it did well in more high-tech manufacturing, such as medical devices.

Bevins said that Lockheed officials are in discussions to lease the Middle River facility to ST Engineering, a Singapore-based global aerospace and engineering company that acquired the neighboring Middle River Aircraft Systems in 2019 for $506 million. The renamed Middle River Aerostructure Systems, which makes jet engine parts, was formed in 1998 when General Electric bought part of the former Martin operation in Middle River from Lockheed.

A Lockheed spokeswoman declined to comment on Bevins’ account. Officials at ST Engineering could not be reached for comment.

Lockheed’s announced departure from the Middle River plant comes as efforts to revitalize the area around Glenn L. Martin State Airport are ramping up.

In December, Baltimore County received a federal transit-oriented development designation — meant to incentivize commercial, residential and entertainment uses within a half-mile of a transit station — for the area around the MARC commuter train station on the airport’s north side.

That designation will support plans by Blue Ocean, a Baltimore-based real estate firm, to redevelop a 1.9 million-square-foot building once operated Martin into Aviation Station, a project that would include an indoor sports facility, a Tru by Hilton hotel, and apartment and retail space at the intersection of White Marsh and Eastern boulevards.

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The property was included as part of an Opportunity Zone in 2019, a federal designation that gives developments a break on capital gains taxes for new investment in such zones. It also sits in a Baltimore County Enterprise Zone.

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Because of those redevelopment efforts, Sandy Marenberg, director of development for Blue Ocean, said there should be a county-funded study and community input on potential future uses of the Lockheed properties, if Lockheed decides to sell its property.

“Just because a building is industrial today doesn’t mean it should be industrial tomorrow,” he said. “It may have better uses that meet the needs of that community being something else.”

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