Unlike most bases, Pax River stands to benefit from defense restructuring BOOMING Growth

December 05, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Staff Writer

LEXINGTON PARK -- Outside the main gate of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, a short walk leads to rows of vacant shops, and storefronts with such names as "JB's Indoor Flea Market" and "Praise and Deliverance Fellowship: Jesus Is Lord."

On the sidewalk outside JB's flea market, William Angelini runs a hand over his face after closing the shop and says, "Yeah, this neighborhood needs help."

Three miles and several lifestyles up Route 235, at a well-furnished real estate office, agent Ron Leonard sees things the same way. "The naval station is the whole economy around here, and these days even people with good jobs on the base are too uncertain to buy houses or trade up," he says. "Until two or three years ago, things always seemed to get better and better, but these days we could use some help."

Help is on the way. Just 18 miles from the tip of land where Southern Maryland gives way to let the Potomac River meet the Chesapeake Bay, this town is the one place in the state -- and one of a handful of places across America -- where defense restructuring promises a big economic boost.

Cutbacks that are throwing thousands out of work at other bases are about to turn Pax River into a prime naval aircraft research and development base. Two important Navy installations are being moved to Pax River, and others could follow. St. Mary's County stands to gain more than 4,000 mostly high-paying jobs in the process -- plus more than $100 million to reshape the base.

"The 21st-century St. Mary's County will be turned on its ear -- these decisions are as important to St. Mary's County as the World War II decision to build the station in the first place," said Mark L. Wasserman, state secretary of economic and employment development.

The county is evolving from a land of campgrounds, hunting fields, boat launches and farmhouses. Today, clusters of colonial and contemporary-style houses, selling for $140,000 to $300,000, are as common as the barns, mobile homes and churches that once were the main interruptions in the gently rolling landscape.

Lexington Park's business center has spread several blocks, and modern low-rise office and commercial space surround the decaying buildings near JB's flea market. For more than five miles north of the naval base, Route 235 is dotted with tidy new buildings that house restaurants, a Kmart, a Wal-Mart and small offices, like Mr. Leonard's real estate agency.

The expected growth spurt is being triggered by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which plans post-Cold War downsizing for the Defense Department and all armed services.

For Patuxent, the best news has come in two decisions. In 1991, the commission decided to move to Patuxent the Navy's East Coast aerial warfare research and development center in Warminster, Pa., and a smaller facility in Trenton, N.J.

In June, the commission decided to move the Naval Air Systems Command here from Crystal City, Va.

A third round of BRAC decisions is scheduled for 1995. Until then, no one can be sure whether still more jobs will flow to Pax River -- or even whether the base might yet join others scheduled to close.

Signs of growth

But that seems more far-fetched as new installations are assigned here and as the first signs of growth appear.

Inside the base, whose 7,000 acres cover virtually the entire Cedar Point peninsula, bulldozers rumble across the land.

They herald the biggest outburst of construction to hit Lexington Park since the boomtown rush that threw the station up in wartime haste half a century ago.

"The acid test of the Navy's commitment to this transition was getting some new buildings out to contract, and we've passed that test," says Rear Adm. Barton D. Strong, Patuxent's commander.

Already under construction are two engineering and laboratory cen ters, a $78.4 million project intended to provide state-of-the-art design capacity for the electronic, metallurgical and other technical work that goes into designing and upgrading naval aircraft and their weapons.

"From every sign you can see, the Navy is making a very long-term commitment to Patuxent River as a major hub for the entire process of developing and improving aircraft, starting with the new research and development functions that will move here from other places, and following on through the testing and evaluation functions we have traditionally had," Admiral Strong said.

Construction work

First to feel the benefits of growth may be construction workers -- scores or hundreds may find work in the next few months, after two years of scratching as hard here as in most of Maryland.

"Including subcontractors, this type of job will require upwards of 300 workers," said Allan Petrasek, who is in charge of building the engineering centers for the general contractor, George Hyman Construction Co.

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