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UMBC presses controversial research park

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Sun incorrectly reported yesterday that Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden was considering layoffs of county workers. In fact, Mr. Hayden is cutting the budget but has previously said he does not anticipate layoffs.

First there was a university president's vision -- a new kind of campus where a professor's discoveries could be translated into marketable products by eager young companies around it. A master plan followed, and a lead tenant emerged.

Then there was a recession, the election of a slate of Baltimore County Council members who promised no new taxes, and the cries of angry neighbors.

Undaunted, the University of Maryland Baltimore County is forging ahead with plans for a 95-acre research park that could substantially alter everyday life in Catonsville and the nature of // the university itself. The groundbreaking is slated for March.

There's just one problem: money.

As recently as 10 days ago, university officials were telling surprised community leaders that the county would finance $2 million in loans to help pay for roads and sewers serving the research park.

But the county's economic development official said last week he would no longer recommend such a plan to newly elected County Executive Roger B. Hayden, who is cutting budgets and talking of layoffs.

And late last week, Westinghouse Electric Corp., the park's lead tenant, changed its corporate mind about publicly discussing its reported plan to build on campus a new building for at least 300 employees, including those moved from its automated manufacturing research operation in Columbia.

"It's a bumpy road," acknowledged Mark Behm, UMBC vice president for administrative affairs and a lead player in assembling the park. "But nonetheless, we are moving down that path."

The path has been strewn with mines. A plan to have the state or county finance the estimated $5 million in roads and sewers in hopes of new tax revenues has fallen through. Right now, the university is feverishly scrambling for at least $1.9 million needed to dig sewers and pave roads leading up to the land parcels that would house the first tenant.

And when the school asks the University of Maryland System Board of Regents to approve a lease for the first tenant as early as next month, the panel could find itself wrestling with difficult questions.

According to the university's own consultant, the park can't work unless somebody other than UMBC finances it. But as of midweek, the university was planning to borrow at least some of the $1.9 million needed to attract Westinghouse from state economic development funds and to repay it with land leases paid by the tenant.

The risks could be great. Nationwide, an estimated 50 percent or more of such experiments fail. In Maryland, the University of Maryland Foundation is already owed $800,000 on its first research park -- 466 acres in Bowie -- that after a decade of planning has attracted only one tenant.

But UMBC officials say they are confident they will succeed where others have not.

A three-year project of UMBC President Michael K. Hooker, the park would be set on a quarter of UMBC's 500 acres and highlight its growing science and engineering emphasis. University planners say it would house major corporations conducting research in biotechnology and computerized manufacturing as well as university research laboratories.

Private companies, which would pay rent for state land but finance their own buildings, would benefit from being close to university researchers, UMBC says.

For the campus, the park would give an edge in recruiting new faculty, offer unique research opportunities and equipment to students and faculty, and ultimately spin off dozens of new high-tech businesses that would benefit the region's economy, school officials say.

Although the research faculty are far fewer in number than those employed by other universities involved in such projects and have relatively few patents or research discoveries, UMBC has been assembling some top-quality professors in highly specialized new high-tech areas. Also, the university says it already has demonstrated successful working relationships with such industries as Westinghouse and Martin-Marietta Corp., the defense contractor.

Three things give UMBC an advantage over Bowie and othe research parks in the Baltimore-Washington corridor that have not fared well, consultants and top campus officials say: the park's location next to the university, campus control through selecting tenants who rent state land and favorable university policies toward research and development. And campus officials say they have learned from the mistakes of others.

"This is the threshold of the future for UMBC," said Connie Beims, executive vice president, who has traveled the country to inspect university research parks.

At minimum, running the park and finding the right tenants would cost $250,000 a year. The income from rental fees that the university now might have to use to pay for sewers is the same money UMBC expected until last week to use to market and maintain the park as well as to build research buildings for its own faculty, a part of the plan consultants say is critical to its success.

According to the consultants, UMBC won't make any money on the project for 50 years if it pays for roads and sewers. Even if others help with the cost, it would still take 15 years to see a return that might benefit the university. The project also assumes that the campus would continue to be able to build faculty and add graduate students in key areas.

In August or September, two years after giving UMBC $230,000 to hire a consultant for the park, the University of Maryland System Board of Regents quietly gave the campus permission to begin negotiating with Westinghouse to lease a 6-acre parcel of land and to seek state grants.

As news of the $80 million project has seeped out, more and more meetings in the community have been scheduled. Local lawmakers, too, have asked UMBC a barrage of questions as opposition mounts.

"The community is distressed," said Berchie Lee Manley, a newly elected county councilwoman from Catonsville who opposes the park. She said the research park would bisect old communities that were trying to retain their stability and would remove the last buffers between the campus and those neighborhoods.

Dr. Hooker said Thursday that a survey of the neighborhood around UMBC by a local group found that the majority supported UMBC's plans. And he said the campus had gone to community groups as early as three years ago to win their support for rezoning changes in connection with the research park. The university also says its planners have barred all development on environmentally and historically sensitive parts of the land.

But while leaders of a dozen community groups first did battle under the banner of the protection of wetlands, archaeological sites, old neighborhoods and what UMBC agrees are potentially monumental traffic problems, they now have larger questions.

"I resent my state and county taxes being used to subsidize private corporations such as Westinghouse, and I think every taxpayer should," said Brian Morrison, a Catonsville resident who says he surveyed his neighborhood and found most people opposed to the park.

Steven Boyan, a political science professor and chairman of the university's faculty senate, says a variety of professors would welcome the park, under certain conditions. For instance, he said, the project might be appealing if research links benefited the faculty and if the park provided income that might be used to buy library books.

But he said faculty and students would be very concerned if the park began to eat into the university's regular budget.

Some of those who reviewed the master plan question whether its predictions are financially sound.

Among other things, the plan promises the county $2 million in added annual property tax revenues and employment for up to 2,000 people.

"Most of us don't agree with that," said Kathy Valderas, president of the Maiden Choice Community Association. If Westinghouse is the model, she said, the park would be made up of transfers from existing corporate research centers.

She and others say they like living near the university, but they also want to preserve their neighborhoods. It comes down to conflicting visions, Ms. Valderas said.

"If we wanted to live next to [the University of Maryland] College Park, we would have moved there," she said.

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