LEXINGTON PARK -- Outside the main gate of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, a short walk leads to rows of vacant shops, and storefronts with such names as "JB's Indoor Flea Market" and "Praise and Deliverance Fellowship: Jesus Is Lord."
On the sidewalk outside JB's flea market, William Angelini runs a hand over his face after closing the shop and says, "Yeah, this neighborhood needs help."
Three miles and several lifestyles up Route 235, at a well-furnished real estate office, agent Ron Leonard sees things the same way. "The naval station is the whole economy around here, and these days even people with good jobs on the base are too uncertain to buy houses or trade up," he says. "Until two or three years ago, things always seemed to get better and better, but these days we could use some help."
Help is on the way. Just 18 miles from the tip of land where Southern Maryland gives way to let the Potomac River meet the Chesapeake Bay, this town is the one place in the state -- and one of a handful of places across America -- where defense restructuring promises a big economic boost.
Cutbacks that are throwing thousands out of work at other bases are about to turn Pax River into a prime naval aircraft research and development base. Two important Navy installations are being moved to Pax River, and others could follow. St. Mary's County stands to gain more than 4,000 mostly high-paying jobs in the process -- plus more than $100 million to reshape the base.
"The 21st-century St. Mary's County will be turned on its ear -- these decisions are as important to St. Mary's County as the World War II decision to build the station in the first place," said Mark L. Wasserman, state secretary of economic and employment development.
The county is evolving from a land of campgrounds, hunting fields, boat launches and farmhouses. Today, clusters of colonial and contemporary-style houses, selling for $140,000 to $300,000, are as common as the barns, mobile homes and churches that once were the main interruptions in the gently rolling landscape.
Lexington Park's business center has spread several blocks, and modern low-rise office and commercial space surround the decaying buildings near JB's flea market. For more than five miles north of the naval base, Route 235 is dotted with tidy new buildings that house restaurants, a Kmart, a Wal-Mart and small offices, like Mr. Leonard's real estate agency.
The expected growth spurt is being triggered by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which plans post-Cold War downsizing for the Defense Department and all armed services.
For Patuxent, the best news has come in two decisions. In 1991, the commission decided to move to Patuxent the Navy's East Coast aerial warfare research and development center in Warminster, Pa., and a smaller facility in Trenton, N.J.
In June, the commission decided to move the Naval Air Systems Command here from Crystal City, Va.
A third round of BRAC decisions is scheduled for 1995. Until then, no one can be sure whether still more jobs will flow to Pax River -- or even whether the base might yet join others scheduled to close.
Signs of growth
But that seems more far-fetched as new installations are assigned here and as the first signs of growth appear.
Inside the base, whose 7,000 acres cover virtually the entire Cedar Point peninsula, bulldozers rumble across the land.
They herald the biggest outburst of construction to hit Lexington Park since the boomtown rush that threw the station up in wartime haste half a century ago.
"The acid test of the Navy's commitment to this transition was getting some new buildings out to contract, and we've passed that test," says Rear Adm. Barton D. Strong, Patuxent's commander.
Already under construction are two engineering and laboratory cen ters, a $78.4 million project intended to provide state-of-the-art design capacity for the electronic, metallurgical and other technical work that goes into designing and upgrading naval aircraft and their weapons.
"From every sign you can see, the Navy is making a very long-term commitment to Patuxent River as a major hub for the entire process of developing and improving aircraft, starting with the new research and development functions that will move here from other places, and following on through the testing and evaluation functions we have traditionally had," Admiral Strong said.
First to feel the benefits of growth may be construction workers -- scores or hundreds may find work in the next few months, after two years of scratching as hard here as in most of Maryland.
"Including subcontractors, this type of job will require upwards of 300 workers," said Allan Petrasek, who is in charge of building the engineering centers for the general contractor, George Hyman Construction Co.
Local planning officials estimate that more than $100 million will go into reshaping the base. Millions of dollars in private construction will come later, much of it office and lab space for civilian contractors -- companies with high-tech names like Pacer Systems, InterMetrics, GRD and SemCor.
But with housing sales just beginning to recover from the recession, home builders are working off existing stock and watching events before they accelerate construction schedules.
"I've only heard of a few sales to early arrivals transferring down here from Pennsylvania," Mr. Leonard said. "I haven't yet sold a house to any of them myself."
By the time Pax River's transformation is completed late in this decade, more than 4,000 Navy and Navy-contractor jobs will be added to the 12,000 already in St. Mary's County, according to Defense Department estimates.
"If you put investment of this magnitude into the Baltimore or Washington metropolitan areas, it would be an incredible blockbuster story, but because it's Southern Maryland, it's going perhaps a bit underappreciated," Mr. Wasserman said.
"The research and technical orientation of these facilities means that the kind of people they will be bringing to St. Mary's County is just as important as the numbers," he added.
"These are highly educated, highly skilled, highly paid people."
5,000 new jobs?
Southern Maryland officials have started conducting exhibitions in Warminster to help the Navy attract contractors and civilian employees here. Some local planners believe that by the time all the contractors are in place, the new jobs could total up to 5,000. That would add about 8 percent to the county's current total of 58,000 civilian and military jobs. The county unemployment rate was 5.2 percent in October; the statewide rate, by comparison, was 6 percent.
The first 400 jobs will be transferred here late next year, but no one expects all the people to move here even when their jobs do.
"If I lived in Bucks County, Pa., with all that area has to offer, I probably wouldn't know much about Southern Maryland, and my first reaction might be: 'Go live with a bunch of people who don't have teeth and don't wear shoes? No way!' " Mr. Leonard said.
"I think a lot of them will try renting here for a while, and after they've been here a year, I think a lot of them will get to like our
pace of life
and discover that it's not too far to Washington and all that has to offer," he added.
Not everyone in St. Mary's County sees the transformation of Patuxent as great news.
Next door to Mr. Leonard's office, Ron Tournay leans across the cash register in front of a wall of assault rifles at J&J; Sports Inc., where he works, and points to rush-hour traffic on Route 235.
Growth worries some
"It's already too busy on these roads, and now it's going to get more crowded," he said. "I used to hunt quail all around here, but now just about all the land I used to hunt is closed off by development of one kind or another."
"There's definitely a challenge to our schools, our zoning and our services," said Aleck Loker, the county's director of economic and employment development.
"But this growth is likely to come gradually, because many of the thousands of people whose jobs will move from Crystal City are likely to commute at first from wherever they already live."
"The growth figures for Patuxent by the end of the century are well within the overall county growth assumptions we were already making," said Gary V. Hodge, director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland. "There's no question St. Mary's can handle it with some good planning."
But that planning is just getting under way.
One question no one seems ready to answer is whether economic fallout will land as close to the base as the forlorn blocks of shops across from the main gate.
Outside JB's Indoor Flea Market, Mr. Angelini's hand makes another pass over his evening stubble: "Yeah, you'd think expanding the base might help -- you'd think so. But to tell the truth, you can't say what it would take to save this place."