State and local officials are beginning what they say is a critical phase in determining the course of redevelopment of the old Bainbridge Navy boot camp near Port Deposit.
The 1,300-acre former Naval Training Center site has great potential for expanding Cecil County's commercial and industrial base and creating much-needed jobs in northeastern Maryland, the officials say. But no decisions on a redevelopment plan will be made without extensive public input, they said.
The most publicized possible use is as a major auto raceway and test track for auto manufacturers. Gov. William Donald Schaefer has mentioned the idea for a couple of years, but he has shied away from advocating it publicly.
State planners and development officials are overseeing a $260,000 study of the site's potential. The Navy still owns the property and has more than a year's worth of environmental cleanup to do before it considers transferring the site to the state.
The state's consultants "are at a point in their study where they need to have the community's input on what they would like to have there," says Stephanie Price, economic development coordinator for Cecil County.
A public meeting on the site was convened March 26, but the more than 300 people who attended overloaded the meeting room. The meeting has been rescheduled for 7 p.m. April 25 at Cecil Community College near North East.
The Maryland Economic Development Corp., a quasi-government agency, is overseeing the consultants working on a redevelopment plan. Hans Mayer, MEDCO's executive director, says the consultants were preparing recommendations in a report due in June.
"Whatever happens, there will be a mixed use," Mayer says. "We're trying to avoid getting involved with anyone who has a single view of this project," he adds, referring to those who are pushing for an auto raceway.
If the state were to take over ownership of the site once the Navy cleanup is completed, Mayer says, "That's one way to assure that what happens is compatible with the community."
Schaefer has visited the site and taken a particular interest in it. The state pushed for the removal of federal job-training center, which was seen as an impediment to redevelopment. The training center was closed in December, at the urging of Schaefer and the Maryland congressional delegation.
The Navy stopped using the site in 1976. The job-training center had been using a small portion of the site.
County officials say they want to ensure that the redevelopment effort helps ease Cecil's high unemployment. The county's unemployment rate was 14.1 percent for February, about twice the state average.
Many county residents, including auto workers, travel to nearby Delaware to work. But there have been lots of layoffs at Chrysler and General Motors plants in that state, Price says.
About half of the workers living in Cecil travel out of the county to their jobs, she adds.
The county of 70,000 residents has attracted a number of new manufacturing companies in recent years, including Konica Corp. of Japan and Himont Inc. of Delaware.
Many of those attending the March public meeting appeared to be advocating a raceway, says Edwin Thomas, a state planning official working on the site. Only a few people had a chance to speak before the meeting was postponed.
A state study prepared two years ago estimated that a raceway, which would draw from a broad area, could generate $146 million in annual spending at the track and surrounding businesses and spawn more than 3,000 jobs.
"Economics is going to play a big part in what happens to the site," Price says. "Even if 99 percent of the people want a racetrack, is that going to be economically feasible?"
"I believe that we will find out that it is viable," says Bud Swiston, a Baltimore racing enthusiast and one of the most vocal supporters of a raceway at Bainbridge.