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APG offers fewer jobs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Aberdeen Proving Ground is still considered the engine that pulls Harford County's economy, but the Army base's contribution to county employment has declined sharply over the past decade.

Ten years ago, APG, as the 72,500-acre military installation is commonly called, accounted for 15,085 jobs, or 20 percent of all jobs in the county.

Today, only one of every 10 workers in the county picks up government checks at Maryland's largest Army base. The military and civilian employees at APG now number 12,030.

That is not necessarily a bad thing, according to county officials and a financial analyst who credits the county's recent favorable bond credit rating on that fact that it has reduced its dependence on one large employer.

Aberdeen is still the county's largest employer. Although the number of jobs there has declined, the county has experienced a significant rise in private-sector jobs.

"Think of us as an industrial park for the military," said George Mercer, a spokesman for APG. "We have 62 different organizations on post. They are like companies. Some are big, and some are small."

Like their counterparts in the civilian world, Mercer said, these military organizations have been "streamlining and down-sizing in recent years as part of the modern economy. They have found ways to do things with less manpower."

At the same time, the private sector has been picking up, according to County Executive James M. Harkins.

"Aberdeen is still very important to us," Harkins said. "There is no doubt about that. But the private sector is growing at a pretty good pace."

Harkins pointed out that nine companies have moved to Harford or expanded their operations here since June. They have created about 750 jobs, he said.

"According to the [Maryland] Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, the private sector grew 20 percent from 1998 to the end of 2002, the latest statistics available," he said.

"Private-sector wages have gone up 29 percent over the same period," he said. "These are not our numbers. They come from the state, and they seem to say that the strategies that we have focused on are bringing in new companies."

J. Thomas Sadowski, the county's economic development director, said the county has created 9,400 private-sector jobs since 1998, many of them in the areas of health care, financial services and retail services, which includes such things as print shops and restaurants.

"Manufacturing is a positive area, as well," Sadowski said. He listed Collins & Aikman Corp. and Master Halco Inc. as examples of manufacturers that have posted big job gains since last year.

Collins & Aikman, an auto parts manufacturer, expanded in Havre de Grace last year and added 100 jobs, Sadowski said. Master Halco, which makes fencing products, built a plant near Edgewood and hired more than 150 workers.

Harford's declining dependence on the military was listed as a major factor in the AA-plus bond rating the county received last month as it went to the market to finance $27.9 million in education and emergency services projects.

"It is always better not to have too many eggs in one basket," said Joseph D. Mason, a research analyst with Fitch Ratings, one of the country's major bond-rating agencies.

Harford's AA-plus rating is one step short of triple-A, the bond-rating industry's gold star of creditworthiness. Fitch rates only 31 counties in the country at triple-A, and only 25 have an AA-plus rating.

County Treasurer John Scotten Jr. said the AA-plus bond rating saved the county about $1.2 million on its bond sale last month.

"Harford County is diversifying, and diversity is better than concentration," Mason said. "Broadening the county's economic base beyond Aberdeen is a compliment to the county's management."

In his financial analysis of the county for the recent bond rating, Mason wrote that Harford has benefited from an increasing number of higher-paying jobs coming from contracts between APG tenants and major research organizations.

"As a result, personal income growth has outpaced regional, state and national averages over the past three years," he said.

Harford is not the only big economic beneficiary of APG, according to Mike Hayes, a retired Marine brigadier general who is director of military affairs and federal facilities for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

Taking information from a recent report done by the department and the University of Baltimore, Hayes said APG is a key element in the vitality of the state.

He said APG stimulates over $1.8 billion in economic activity in Maryland, which is about 1 percent of the state gross product.

APG employs slightly more than 12,000 military and civilian personnel, but supports another 23,948 jobs throughout the state.

Other findings of the study include:

APG stimulates $831 million in employee compensation, or 27 percent of all the salaries and wages in Harford and Cecil counties.

The average APG salary is 217 percent greater than the average salary in the northeast region of the state.

The economic activity supported by the base generates $29 million in tax revenue for the state and almost $11 million in local tax revenue.

APG employees pay an estimated $7 million in local property taxes.

For these reasons, Harkins considers Aberdeen the county's crown jewel, and the county has begun mustering its forces to protect Aberdeen from the Defense Department's next round of military base realignments and closures, which are scheduled for next year.

"The Pentagon has already begun releasing the criteria for its realignment," Sadowski said.

Although Harkins expressed confidence that Aberdeen will do well in the review, he said: "We can't go into this with a cocky attitude."

"I think APG is still very important to the military, but we want to make certain we come out of the base-closing process a gainer, not a loser," Harkins said.

"Our goal is to keep what we have and bring more to APG," Sadowski said. He said much of the work at his office over the next year will be directed at protecting APG and its more than 60 military operations.

"Aberdeen is still a major part of our economy, and we will be working with the state and the Army Alliance to keep our congressional delegation informed and aware of what's going on," Sadowski said.

"We're hoping to benefit from the new round of base realignments," said Bill Richardson, president of the Army Alliance, a nonprofit business-advocacy group that works to strengthen the base's future. "But you can never feel too secure."

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