BRAC 'gold rush' sets in

The Baltimore Sun

Real estate agents offering to help defense workers find homes. Law firms peddling their expertise in negotiating military contracts. Management and sales consultants tendering advice on how to sell to the government or contractors.

The huge nationwide military base shuffle has spawned a cottage industry of businesses and entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the influx of up to 60,000 jobs and 28,000 households to Maryland. If the almost weekly conferences, seminars and workshops aren't enough, there are newsletters and Web sites offering the lowdown on how Maryland will be affected by the Pentagon's Base Closure and Realignment Commission's 2005 decision to shift thousands of mostly civilian, high-tech defense workers to military installations here.

The swarm of businesses around BRAC is hardly surprising. Between construction contracts, defense spending and a general increase in commerce from the growing population, the base buildup is expected to pump billions of dollars into the economy.

Planners say most of the jobs and households won't show up until 2010 or 2011 - and even then, the only concrete numbers are the 16,000 civilian and military jobs, plus defense contractors, expected to relocate here.

The gold rush has begun for lucrative construction contracts to build offices and laboratories for the new base workers. One Baltimore-based electrical contractor, Gill-Simpson Inc., landed its biggest job ever, part of a $477.5 million contract to build new offices at Aberdeen Proving Ground. It's bidding for a similar job at Fort Meade.

Ronald N. Michael III, the firm's vice president, says he suddenly has lots of new friends - ranging from electricians in Iowa who call to see if he's hiring, to hot dog vendors and Spot-a-Pot firms seeking to serve his construction sites.

He gets calls

"I had a tire company call me and say, 'What's your fleet of trucks? Who does your tires?'" he said.

News of the electrical contractor's big score drew Chuck Love to a base realignment business workshop in Cecil County recently. Love, who works for United Electric Supply Co. in Baltimore, said his firm had done a little work at Fort Meade before but was hoping to sign on as a supplier for a new military construction job. "Everybody's looking to get in there," he said.

Other business opportunities might have to wait a few years, but entrepreneurs perk up when they hear - as the Cecil workshop did - that the Army spent $13 billion last year on electronic warfare. Much of it passed through the Fort Monmouth, N.J., research center that's scheduled to move to Aberdeen.

The ranks of entrepreneurs selling BRAC savvy include Joseph A. Oricchio Jr., Perry Ealim and Chuck Floyd.

Oricchio, a Bel Air sales and planning consultant, publishes BRAC Watch, an occasional online newsletter about base realignment.

"I've become what I refer to as a student of BRAC," Oricchio said, with a newsletter he describes as a "loss leader" for his consulting business. Though the state Small Business Development Center has paid him to arrange some workshops on preparing for BRAC, he does much of his speaking on a volunteer basis.

"Business development sales is a full-contact sport," Oricchio advised attendees at the Cecil workshop. 'You've got to get out there belly to belly with the decision-makers."

Ealim, meanwhile, says he drew about 200 to a seminar on base realignment in Annapolis last month for minority-owned businesses. Owner of a consulting firm, Ealim says he's hoping to do another BRAC symposium early next year.

"It's like a big maze out there," Ealim said of the complexities of government contracting - especially for the small businesses owned by minorities and women that he's trying to serve. "I'm trying to build my business, too," he said. "It's a win-win for everybody."

Floyd, a Bethesda security consultant, runs "Official BRAC," a Web site that advertises itself as a "trusted source for real-time, accurate BRAC information for Maryland, Virginia and Washington.

In addition to Floyd's Web site, which he says has drawn 40 or 50 paying clients, Floyd has helped organize meetings promoting various business aspects of BRAC. His work to date has been essentially charitable.

Lawyer ally

"We don't get a salary, we don't get anything," Floyd said. "Then, if we're able to team with someone on a contract later, that's fine."

At least three local law firms have created BRAC pages on their Web sites. One of them, Whiteford Taylor Preston, sponsored a "Building with BRAC" seminar in June, with Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger as the keynote speaker. The Baltimore County Democrat drew more than 175 contractors, developers and government officials.

Heather James, head of Whiteford's BRAC committee, said she and other lawyers have joined the alliances and task forces that formed around Aberdeen, Fort Detrick and Fort Meade. By year's end, the firm plans to publish a quarterly newsletter focusing on realignment legal issues.

"We have a primary interest in meeting regularly with county and state executives and military folks to make sure we're on top of all the information that's flowing from BRAC right now," James said.

James said she landed a new client recently when a small-business owner saw her quoted in a news article and contacted her for help with government contracts.

State help

The law firms, consultants and others spreading the word about BRAC frequently turn to the same source for insights about base realignment: Michael Hayes, director of the office of military and federal affairs at the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

Hayes says construction firms and suppliers should scramble now to become qualified bidders or hire on as subcontractors with the winners of those big building projects. As for the predicted influx of well-paid workers and their families, Hayes says migration won't grow significantly for two to three years.

That was disappointing news for Bilaal El, property manager for Mid-Atlantic Realty in New Castle, Del., who drove to Elkton for the Cecil workshop, hoping for news of tenants for the company's apartments in Maryland and Delaware.

"I thought it was going to be a little bit sooner," he said.

Even if the flood of BRAC workers is scarcely a trickle yet, Oricchio says it's not too early for businesses to prepare themselves to capture the newcomers as they arrive. He likens BRAC to " a train coming down the track."

"The people who choose to ignore it and turn their back on it are likely to get hit by that train," Oricchio said. "Others who choose to be students of BRAC are likely to get a ride on that train."

And for those looking for an angle, Oricchio has this tip: Think pizza.

"I'm from New York, right near where these people are coming from," he said, referring to Fort Monmouth, N.J. "They consider the type of pizza we eat down here repulsive.

"Someone who's aware of this and enterprising down here - or who's up there - is going to come down here and open a real pizza shop," he said.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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