Fort Meade gets that college look


January 12, 1993|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

For a lot of older Marylanders, Fort George G. Meade conjures up images of young soldiers fresh out of high school learning how to fire automatic weapons, frolicking along the bawdy Boomtown strip and preparing to fight aggression overseas.

But that really hasn't been the case for a number of years, of course. And with a new role for the military at the end of the Cold War, and the closing of more than half the base in western Anne Arundel County, the post is visibly and rapidly being altered, even to accommodate casual visitors.

Since taking command at Fort Meade in 1991, Col. Kent D. Menser has been tearing down old asbestos-filled barracks, moving dirty motor pools away from public roads, tearing down fences and turning the cryptic signs written in military acronyms into civilian-friendly guideposts.

He wants Fort Meade to be like a college campus with an intelligence cluster -- the mammoth, super-secretive National Security Agency already is there -- and an educational center. He says the Army is interested in turning this old military post into an extension of neighboring Odenton, a base without boundaries.

QUESTION: You have promoted a great deal of openness and cooperation with Odenton. Is this a survival technique for military bases that have been realigned? Is it unique to Fort Meade or is it going on at other bases as well?

ANSWER: This is part of a new focus by the Army that recognizes there are no more Fort Apaches, isolated and surrounded by fences. Installations have to change and recognize that they need to adjust to the environment around them.

It is something new in the Army, and Fort Meade is probably out in front.

Q.: A lot of people who saw the recent troop departures from Fort Meade -- the 519th Military Police Battalion and the 85th Medical Battalion -- wondered if the base was closing down. How viable is Fort Meade?

A.: Many do believe that Fort Meade is in the process of closing down. You know, the strength of those two battalions was about 600 to 700 soldiers, out of an installation of around 40,000. It was a very small number.

More than 8,100 of the base's 13,000 acres have been transferred to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, where they will be preserved.

Because of our location, right in the center of Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis, we've become an extremely valuable piece of government property.

Because of that, there is lots of interest by agencies outside of Fort Meade to relocate. One of those is the consolidated Defense Information School, which trains military public affairs officers. Fort Meade announced last month that three such schools will consolidate at the Odenton base, possibly by 1995.

Q.: The new mission seems quite different from training active duty troops for battle.

A.: Mobilization was a very small part of Fort Meade. The large part is what goes on every day, has gone on for years and will go on in the future.

We have numerous important missions.

It may not be glamorous. You don't see tanks and hundreds of airplanes and thousands of soldiers marching around with weapons on the street. What we have here is a very sophisticated support installation.

Because of our change of mission, we won't be as large a mobilization station in the future. We don't have the firing ranges and training facilities anymore. We don't have the bed space anymore. When you drive by, we are a town like anyplace else.

Q.: Why is cooperation with the community, namely Odenton, so important to Fort Meade?

A.: You can't just picture an installation to be a one-mile by one-mile square with fences around it. It is made up of all those things that affect its operation. We want to make sure we work closely with other communities because walls or no walls, we affect each other in terms of transportation and socio-economic factors.

We have people who live off the installation, so we want to make sure we work very closely with other communities. I think our outlook is the same: to have a community that has an environment that supports its people.

Q.: Major expensive housing developments are being built in Odenton, including one right behind the old Boomtown strip on Route 175. Fort Meade is changing to an administrative post, meaning more white-collar workers. Is this a nice coincidence, or is one feeding off the other?

A.: It is part coincidence, but at the same time, both are developing based on some of the same factors.

For example, the typical Fort Meade soldier is, in fact, married and has one or two children. It is different from 1944 when you had several hundred thousand single soldiers here.

The environment is different on the installation, and that means the immediate environment around the installation has changed.

Families have different interests and expectations than the 18-year-old soldier and sailor. And so you . . . don't see a number of dance halls, for a lack of a better term. They were here in 1944.

Q.: Is this evolution inevitable?

A.: The changes would come to Fort Meade regardless. The key is to have the plan in place so we can accept these changes in an orderly and planned way.

We know we are going to get new tenants at Fort Meade. So before the first one even comes, we identify the land those tenants are going to be on, and we identify the support services those tenants are going to need.

Right now, we are laying out proposed rights of way for mass transit at Fort Meade. We know some day it will come, maybe in five years, maybe in 20 years, maybe 100 years from now. We are mapping it out right now so in five years we won't build a building across it.

If you don't do that, you end up spending extra money. We face the same growth problems that towns face.

I think some people probably think I am too focused on the future. We know where we are going. We are laying out the standards and the guidelines. It's not something we are wishing for. It's something we are planning for step by step.

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