HARFORD COUNTY officials are fretting about the future of Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Army's sprawling test and research facility along the upper Chesapeake Bay. James M. Harkins, Harford's new county executive, raised concern about the county's largest employer in his inauguration address last month. Many in the business community get jittery about even the remote possibility of losing a facility whose economic impact is estimated at $750 million, two-thirds in Harford, the rest in neighboring Baltimore and Cecil counties. Fears intensified last fall when the Army restructured an administrative operation headquartered at Aberdeen, the Test and Evaluation Command, or TECOM. Some speculated that the resulting switch of a two-star general on base for a one-star general would shrink APG's influence in the Pentagon chain of command. One county official compared it to the loss of corporate-sector influence in Baltimore over the past decade as financial firms have merged and moved headquarters elsewhere, leaving behind "branch offices." In yet another worrisome move, the Army has begun soliciting bids to see if certain work can be contracted out more cheaply, another threat to jobs. Spokesmen at APG say the fears are exaggerated, if understandable, in the post-Cold War era of military downsizing and base closings. Units come and go. But they point out that the Proving Ground's population is the same as a decade ago: 14,000. Indeed, APG presents no sense of a place in decline. It looks more like a city than the towns in Harford County, what with its 2,200 buildings, its own fire department and fast-food restaurants. The facility encompasses so many acres -- 72,500 -- that a managed hunt is necessary to keep it from being overrun with deer. APG has tested and developed several generations of weapons, dating to World War I. That's when President Woodrow Wilson approved the purchase of what was swampy, fertile farm country. APG's mission and access to Washington, unusual for a munitions test site, should make it valuable to the Army. Also, its relationship with the community is smoother than years ago, thanks to changes in testing artillery. But complacency is a danger. County officials, the governor's office, U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose district includes Harford, must remain alert about APG's status. A recent example of how to save an installation can be found 100 miles south at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. The St. Mary's County facility was destined for the base closure list in 1988, but won a last-minute reprieve. The scare led to the formation of the Navy Alliance, a private-public partnership that aggressively defends the base, even using lobbyists and consultants. Pax River not only survived, it thrived, jumping from 12,000 employees in 1995 to 17,000 now, including 3,000 jobs transferred two years ago from Crystal City, Va. The 1993 change in the congressional district of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer also proved fortuitous. The issue of preserving the base's jobs was ready-made for a legislator eager to impress a new constituency. A former Navy contractor in St. Mary's offers this advice: "If the folks in Harford County are smart, they'll assume the worst and have a sense of urgency. Stay vigilant." Pax River showed that pro-active involvement of community and government is more productive than worrying. It is a lesson that can also apply to Aberdeen.
Pub Date: 1/16/99