Skepticism lingers about tech firm being wooed for Bainbridge location

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Community opposition and suspicion are growing regarding a proposed 500-acre applied technology park at the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Port Deposit that backers say could bring up to 3,000 high-paying jobs to the region.

The opposition comes at a time when the Bainbridge Development Corp. is close to making a proposal to Berkshire Laboratories Inc. designed to lure the company to a site on a hill overlooking the Susquehanna River.

Harland R. Graef, chairman of the BDC, said he expects to have a proposal ready for directors to vote on at a meeting scheduled for Sept. 2.

The BDC is a quasi-public agency established by the General Assembly in 1999 to oversee the development of Bainbridge.

Berkshire is a small and little-known Columbus, Ohio, company that claims to have patents on technology that it says could revolutionize a number of industries and make U.S. companies competitive with $3-per-hour labor in other parts of the world.

Walter Buck, one of the nine directors of the BDC, wants to slow the process to provide more time for the BDC, state and county to take a look at Berkshire. "I think we need our own independent, credible, unbiased investigation of this company," he said.

During the BDC's public meeting Wednesday in Port Deposit, Buck said Berkshire "has not made a good case" for its technology and has not provided the board with a business plan.

"We need more than a hope and a prayer that this company is real."

Part of the suspicion stems from the limited information about Berkshire and its technology. Mark G. Mortenson, a consultant and patent attorney for the company, said the business is made up of a dozen people and has kept a low profile the past seven years while it moved to obtain patents to protect its technology.

Cecil County commissioners also have concerns.

Of the four commissioners interviewed last week, one was opposed to the company locating at Bainbridge, one said he would vote for the project, and another would endorse the project if language was written into the contract to safeguard the land.

The fourth commissioner, Phyllis Kilby, said, "The jury is still out" on the proposal. Kilby said she has requested a copy of any proposal to be made to Berkshire in time for her to have people from different backgrounds examine it.

"Any agreement with Berkshire should be thoroughly vetted before it is voted on," she said.

Commissioner Mark H. Guns called Berkshire "the best thing we have now" but said he would like to see language in a contract to protect the property if Berkshire proved unsuccessful.

Nelson K. Bolender, president of the Board of Commissioners, said he would probably endorse the Berkshire plan. "I haven't heard anything negative about them," he said.

The Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development is reviewing Berkshire. "We are in the process of doing due diligence of the company and its technology," said Vernon J. Thompson, deputy secretary of the state agency.

Thompson said Berkshire could be an ideal tenant for Bainbridge. "They are a company that appears to have very interesting technology," he said, and the department is trying to find outside sources to confirm the company's claims before directors of the BDC vote on awarding it a contract.

During a meeting with county commissioners Thursday, members of Citizens for Economic Development at Bainbridge, said they were "absolutely convinced that BDC has not done sufficient homework to determine whether or not Berkshire's technology is sufficiently proven for a venture at Bainbridge."

The group, which says it has about 75 members, was formed this year in an effort to limit the number of houses built at Bainbridge.

The group "is not opposed to giving any worthwhile venture an opportunity, however, BDC should have expert scientists make a study to determine the probability of Berkshire's claims before getting serious with an obviously unknown entity," states a document the group presented to the commissioners.

The group brought with them Clay McDowell, a retired researcher at Aberdeen Proving Ground, who warned that even if Berkshire's technology proves to be valid, it could be 10 to 20 years before there is an economic return.

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