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Aberdeen Proving Ground's Future


For all the technological marvels that have been developed by scientists at Aberdeen Proving Ground -- everything from the M1 tank to NyQuil cold medicine -- what they really need to concoct is a crystal ball. Maybe that would shed light on the future of the mammoth military testing installation in Harford County as the American armed forces shrink in the post-Cold War.

To be sure, no one envisages the closure of the 72,000-acre proving ground. It is a virtual small city with its own fire company, movie theater and fast food joints -- only it happens to explode tanks and has live shells buried here and there, too. At least for the foreseeable future, APG-watchers believe the facility's workforce will remain around 14,000 employees, including nearly civilians. With weapons production down, there is less demand for operational testing, but still a need to test and develop new defense technologies.

If Harford countians in 1917 weren't exactly thrilled that the Army had chosen some of the county's best vegetable farms and duck hunting flats for its new proving ground, later generations of local leaders came to see Aberdeen as the butter for their bread. Even as the county has grown and diversified, the installation remains Harford's largest employer: One of every 13 civilian workers in the county works there. It draws employees from as far as New Jersey.

"Aberdeen Proving Ground is a tremendous economic hub for us. We have to do everything in our power to strengthen it," says Harford economic development director James Fielder. The proving ground means $1.25 billion for Maryland, rivaling the Port of Baltimore for economic impact, he says.

The county and state recently joined forces to bid on a regional Department of Defense finance center for APG, which would employ 4,000 to 7,000 accountants and others. Other states may promise to build a new office building to win the competition, however, an offer Maryland and Harford can't afford. If the center goes elsewhere, possibly 200 jobs would vacate the installation.

Yet another consolidation that's under preliminary consideration -- of the ordnance training school -- threatens another 1,600 jobs at APG. On the plus side, however, the base will gain 300-plus employees when the Army opens a new research lab there soon. Flux is the only constant.

There's little doubt though, with the leaders of the Free World and Free World-wannabe communing on a yacht in Chesapeake Bay, inching toward greater global security, the fears and finances that fueled APG's boom are lessening. That gives local officials cause for concern. With munitions tests that sound from afar like dinosaurs waking, APG might not always provide peace for Harford County, but it has meant prosperity.

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