An array of county, state and military officials praised Harford County and held it as a role model for if planning for and implementing the base realignment at Aberdeen Proving Ground, which is scheduled to be completed in six days.
About 60 people attended the county's final BRAC town hall forum Aberdeen High School Wednesday evening to review APG's transformation from a $3.5 billion to a $20 billion installation. Many of those in the audience were connected with the government and various interest groups involved with the BRAC process.
The event featured five speakers: Harford County Executive David Craig, BRAC Advisory Commission chairman Tom Sadowski, Gen. Nick Justice of APG, Justin Hayes representing U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski and retired general Mike Hayes representing the state government.
Those in the audience included Harford County Council President Billy Boniface and Councilmen Dick Slutzky and Dion Guthrie; the heads of at least five county departments; representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, Rep. Andy Harris and Sen. Ben Cardin; Aberdeen and Havre de Grace Mayors Mike Bennett and Wayne Dougherty; Aberdeen Councilwoman Ruth Ann Young; Harford Community College President Dennis Golladay; Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor Director Karen Holt; Sheriff Jesse Bane; APG Garrison Commander Col. Orlando Ortiz; and Cecil College President Stephen Pannill.
Craig said the federal government's official final day of base realignment affecting Aberdeen Proving Ground is really just the beginning.
"It's like a wedding day, and Sept. 15 is when we walk down the aisle," he said, explaining everything that comes after is what will keep BRAC working.
Traffic congestion in around APG will continue to get worse, he acknowledged, although it means more people have jobs, he said.
"We have to continue to work on that," Craig said of the traffic situation.
He said the county has invested more than $300 million in capital projects since he first learned about BRAC, just after being inaugurated in 2005.
That includes four new schools, including the "phenomenal" Red Pump Elementary School which opened for the first time last week, he said, and the expansion of the Abingdon water plant.
BRAC preparations have also included $57 million in highway and transit projects, a banking commission, a finance commission to study tax increment financing and things like hospitality videos, which Craig joked were needed to teach people from New Jersey how to pump gas and pick crabs.
Many of those being relocated to Harford County and APG are coming from Fort Monmouth in northern New Jersey.
Craig also said Harford County paved the way with its plan for how to respond to BRAC.
"I've always been proud that the state of Maryland took our report and sort of whited out [substituted] Harford County, and many other counties did that," he said.
Recalling the zero percent nationwide job growth announced for August, Craig also joked that Harford County is doing considerably better.
"We actually created more jobs here than the whole nation did," he said.
APG also got $1.3 billion in federal funds for new construction and relocated 76 defense contractors to the county. Meanwhile, 61 percent of residents who relocated moved to Harford County, according to a fact sheet distributed at the meeting.
Private sector efforts
Sadowski, a former economic development director for Harford County government, agreed with the favorable results from Harford's BRAC plan, adding, "communities throughout the country took this model, took this plan and used it as a template."
He said his group has done many creative things, such as the enhanced-use lease option on The GATE office park at APG, explaining it is important to maintain partnerships and keep pushing governments higher up.
"We have to continue the conversation. We have to stay on top of all these issues," Sadowski said. "If the political will isn't sustained, there's going to be an evaporation of support and funding, and we can't have that happen."
He even attempted to coin a new name for the area.
"We're the new tech hotbed on the Eastern seaboard, so that's a lot to be proud of," he said. "There's Silicon Valley, there's Silicon Hills in Austin [Texas]. Now they're referring to this part of the world as Silicon Bay, and I think it's partly because of the real good work that all of you in this room have done."
The military perspective
Justice, the commanding general at APG, later joked about the Silicon Bay moniker.
"That means 'sand on the beach,' doesn't it?" he said. "I like that."
Justice said BRAC has created a unique workforce, and the opposite of what usually happens on a military installation.
"Our young soldiers are moving out and a more permanent workforce is coming into your community," he said. "They are going to be here for years to come. They are going to go to those schools that are being built. They're going to live in those neighborhoods in the surrounding counties, and they're going to become Marylanders…The military is the minority at the proving grounds, not the majority."
Justice used the recent reopening of the Poole's Island Lighthouse in APG waters as an example of what BRAC will mean to the post.
"It's just tremendous how relighting that lighthouse brought out the stories and history that surrounds the place," he said. "We're at the resurgence of a new type of vibrant economy. When you think of that piece of infrastructure [the lighthouse], it's a reminder of the investment it takes in a community to make things happen."
He and other military representatives said their relationship with local officials has been outstanding and rare.
"This community has absolutely absorbed this relationship better than any other place in the country," Hayes, a retired brigadier general who now works for the state, told the crowd.
"From a state perspective, there is full engagement and sadly, there is full engagement at a time when resources are very limited," he said. "We are going to be in a very tough scrape for a while but just know that the focus will be on BRAC."
Justice agreed, saying whether it's first responders, government officials or the school system, everyone has been very supportive.
"We rarely find the kind of support in surrounding communities that we've found in Maryland," he said.
More in store
Other BRAC related projects will continue coming to APG, as the post reshapes itself to its contemporary mission.
Justice highlighted some of them, mentioning a fourth child-care center, revitalization of the Public Health Command lab, several buildings to be transferred to the Maryland National Guard and renovation of a U.S. Courthouse and aBurger King.
Recent accomplishments include renovations to 11 barracks, the Hoyle gym, athletics center and the garrison operations consolidation, he said.
Between 2008 and this year, 100 old APG buildings have been demolished at a cost of $5.4 million, he said.
The demolition program is set to continue through 2017 but has not been funded past this year.