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Md. works to retain secretive U.S. agency


State leaders are working behind the scenes to halt the proposed shift of the secretive National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from Bethesda to Virginia, arguing that if it must move, the operation should go to Fort Meade, which is set to undergo a major expansion over the next seven years.

The 3,000-worker agency, which does mapping and analysis of satellite photographs and images for the military, is the only major military facility slated to leave Maryland under the Pentagon's proposed shakeup of military bases.

Even with the loss of the satellite agency, the state would gain more jobs than all but one other state -- Georgia -- under the Pentagon proposals. Local officials already are planning for the effect of those jobs on everything from highways to housing stock.

A range of Marylanders, from Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan to U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, are working to keep the Geospatial agency as well -- though they are worried about arousing communities in other states vying for the same federal jobs, said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sarbanes.

Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, confirmed that such an effort is under way. But he said, "The reality is it's a very sensitive topic, and we really shouldn't be discussing it."

The Fort Meade expansion -- estimated by state and local officials to exceed 10,000 jobs -- could bolster arguments for moving the Geospatial agency to Anne Arundel County instead of to Fort Belvoir, Va., as proposed by the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure Commission. The White House is to receive final recommendations in September.

Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski met this week with Geospatial's director and spoke with Anthony J. Principi, the base commissions chairman, a spokeswoman said. The senator also sent Principi a letter outlining her arguments for keeping the agency in Maryland.

"In sum, I believe that Fort Meade's secure, superior facilities make it better suited than Fort Belvoir to accommodate the special needs of a high-tech intelligence facility," Mikulski said in a letter released yesterday and dated May 26.

Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., whose district covers Montgomery County, said, "The first thing we want to look at is whether we can accommodate security concerns at the existing site." If not, a move to Fort Meade would be less disruptive for employees, he said.

'Logical alternative'

Duncan said he would prefer to keep the Geospatial operation in Bethesda, but said that "for a fallback, Fort Meade is the next logical alternative."

Fort Meade was mentioned as a possible home for the agency earlier this year by Col. John W. Ives, retiring commander of the Army base.

In a March interview with The Sun, he pointed to reports that the agency would like to grow, and went on to highlight Fort Meade's advantages as a potential site. He noted that the post is being modernized, with new fiber-optic communications lines and 3,170 new base homes under construction.

"We are easily capable of growing by more than 20,000 people," he said.

Planning officials in Anne Arundel and Howard counties are preparing for a huge influx of jobs under the Pentagon's realignment plan, regardless of what happens with the Geospatial agency.

State officials have advised local planners to prepare for at least 10,000 jobs -- and that could prove to be a conservative estimate.

"The numbers we're preparing for are much higher than this" as Fort Meade and the National Security Agency expand, said Anne Arundel County planning director Joseph W. Rutter, Jr. "There will be more announcements over time. This is part of an overall package."

'A major challenge'

Economists caution that the base realignment decision is not final. And if and when the jobs come to the area, they likely will be spread out over a couple of years.

"This will create a major challenge for the local governments. They may have to rethink how much density is appropriate in Howard County or Anne Arundel County," said Stephen Fuller, an economist and director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.

The immediate effect will be increased traffic as new jobs lead to thousands more cars on the roads, Fuller said.

Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, said the added jobs will increase pressure to widen Route 32, which already is clogged with workers heading to NSA, Fort Meade and Northrop Grumman.

Despite that, Howard County planning director Marsha L. McLaughlin said the U.S. 1 corridor recently was rezoned for intense redevelopment for new homes and businesses -- and isn't far from the NSA-Fort Meade area.

"We're working as fast as we can so the infrastructure will be there," she said.

Walt Townshend, president and CEO of the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce, said the organization is the only chamber in the nation to operate a bus system, which could be useful in ferrying employees from commuter trains on the MARC line to jobs at NSA and Fort Meade.

Rutter said transportation improvements to Route 175 next to the base are under way. Improving the highway is Anne Arundel's top transportation priority, he said.

Approximately 60,000 county residents commute out of the county for work, Rutter said. If some of them commuted instead to the Fort Meade area, "that would help reduce traffic from a regional perspective." The state also has plans to create additional parking at the MARC train station in Odenton, Rutter said.

Rutter also said the county has plenty of office space being built that could accommodate private contractors doing government work.

Construction has begun on about 2 million square feet of space in Annapolis Junction, and a 1.8 million-square-foot business park is to be built in the Arundel Mills area.

"We in Anne Arundel County have been preparing for significant increases in activity both on and off base," he said.

Sun staff writer Phillip McGowan contributed to this article.

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