UMBC grows in pursuit of fame, honors 41-acre research park is biggest gamble yet for national prestige; Foes press fight in court; Building flurry touted in marketing school as 'entrepreneurial'


Standing on the roof of the 10-story administration building, University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III cannot contain his excitement as he looks out at roaring earthmovers stirring up clouds of dust in a nearby field.

"I love it!" he exclaims.

After nearly 10 years of waiting, he is watching the start of a $40 million research park -- the most recent project in a flurry of building activity unmatched since UMBC's early years.

The construction has added academic, administrative and sports facilities to the Catonsville campus, giving a new sense of permanence to the school, which opened in 1966. And the latest project, the 41-acre research park, represents UMBC's biggest gamble yet to draw national attention to itself.

Although no tenants have been signed, and opponents are challenging the project in court, Hrabowski is confident the park will be such a success that UMBC will be asked to help develop other laboratory facilities in the area.

"There's a new word to describe us -- entrepreneurial," he says.

Add that to the other superlatives being touted as the university steps up its marketing campaign. Slick brochures sport a new slogan: "An Honors University in Maryland." And officials have taken to ignoring the formal name in favor of UMBC -- like UCLA and USC, Hrabowski notes.

Such bravado goes back to the university's earliest days.

Conceived to relieve congestion at the University of Maryland, College Park, UMBC was built on farmland that had been part of the Spring Grove Hospital Center. That first semester, UMBC had just three buildings and 750 students, but those who came to start the university were certain they were creating a first-class research institution.

"There was a sort of youthful brashness," says W. Edward Orser, a UMBC professor who has compiled a history of the school.

In UMBC's first 10 years, 22 buildings were constructed on campus, and enrollment jumped from 750 to more than 5,000.

But in the 1980s and early 1990s, the confidence waned a bit as state legislators debated merging UMBC with other schools in the University System of Maryland -- a proposal that was eventually rejected.

Today the future of the 10,000-student university seems as secure as the tall, white silo that stands at the edge of campus, a monument to its farm heritage. The focus is not on surviving, but thriving.

South campus

To lure some of the nation's best students -- and better compete with long-established, ivy-covered campuses -- UMBC has embarked on a building campaign that will produce better athletic facilities, dorms and classrooms.

Last year, the university built a new track field, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a new plaza in front of the administration building, and added a 30-acre south campus when the state bought a Lockheed Martin Corp. laboratory for a university research center.

Nearly $6.5 million has been spent this year on construction projects, including the research park site development, an admissions building renovation and a wing on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which conducts research on the AIDS virus.

More than $70 million in projects are planned for the next six years, including a new field house, student union, physics building and renovations to other science buildings.

Now 34 major buildings occupy the university campus. Most buildings are laid out in rows encircled by a road; outside the loop are athletic fields and the research park site.

The research park reflects a growing trend at schools nationwide, says the Association of University-Related Research Parks in Tempe, Ariz. That organization counts 144 such facilities in North America and says construction has picked up after a brief leveling off in the 1980s.

Corporate alliances

"We're seeing some of the small schools and colleges and technical centers developing them," says Doug McQueen, executive director of the association.

UMBC already has a number of corporate alliances, including a business incubator program on campus and the UMBC Technology Center in the former Lockheed Martin lab a short distance away. The research park will complement these programs, Hrabowski says, providing jobs for the region and research opportunities for faculty and staff.

His predecessor, Michael K. Hooker, proposed the research park a decade ago, but a sluggish economy and community opposition delayed it. The original plan has been scaled back, from 12 buildings on 93 acres to five buildings on 41 acres, with the remaining land set aside for environmental research.

Although the reduction in size has mollified some critics, others vow to continue fighting in court.

Members of the Coalition for the Preservation of Southwest Baltimore County argue that the project will overburden area roads and sewers and destroy an environmentally sensitive area. Some university students and staff members, meanwhile, question whether UMBC should be in the research park business.

A legal challenge by some members of the coalition is pending in the county Circuit Court.

Meanwhile, work on the project continues. Excavators are building sediment-control management ponds and preparing to lay water lines; site preparation is expected to be completed in the spring. The UMBC Research Park Corp., which will run the facility, is negotiating with prospective tenants.

More lab space

Hrabowski knows that a 464-acre University of Maryland, College Park research park languishes in Bowie for want of tenants, but he is confident UMBC can avoid the pitfalls that sometimes accompany such projects.

Besides offering companies the chance to work near a university, UMBC's park will have easy access to Interstate 95 and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, he notes. And the success of the UMBC Technology Center, which is almost full, points to the need for more lab space, he says.

David O. Hash, vice president of Dome Real Estate, which developed the Johns Hopkins Bayview research campus, says UMBC has reason to be optimistic.

"We've found that over the last four or five years, there has not been enough laboratory space, particularly for young and start-up companies," he says. UMBC has "a good piece of property."

Amid all the growth, UMBC has the feel of a work in progress. There are no ivy-covered walls, and most buildings have such unimaginative names as Fine Arts Building or Lecture Hall I.

The university has refrained from naming most of its buildings to give an incentive to wealthy contributors who would like to see their names in stone.

But UMBC boosts its image in other ways.

On the advice of an image consultant, it developed the slogan "An Honors University in Maryland" to convey academic excellence. A new brochure titled "Who Knows UMBC?" lists forays into the national spotlight, such as the school chess team's victory over MIT and actress Sharon Stone's purchase of a student's artwork.

Still, there is that name.

"University of Maryland, Baltimore County," sounds like a community college or a branch of the University of Maryland, College Park.

So officials have taken to calling their school simply "UMBC."

Hrabowski says that will have to do for now: "Until we get that $100 million gift, we're going to be UMBC."

Pub Date: 7/20/97

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