FDA project promises boost for D.C. suburbs

March 17, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Maryland's suburbs of Washington got a major construction boost and the promise of more biomedical-research activity from the Clinton administration's decision this week to double the size of the Food and Drug Administration's consolidation.

The project will mean thousands of construction jobs at the FDA sites and untold additional jobs in private companies that decide to locate near the new facilities.

The decision, apparently ending a six-year dispute over the size and location of new FDA facilities in the Washington suburbs, means that Maryland gets an $875 million project involving construction of 2 million square feet of laboratory and office space, mostly in Montgomery County, that eventually will house about 7,000 workers.

Members of the Maryland congressional delegation were ecstatic at the decision, which clears the way for the project to begin after years of delay and indecision.

The FDA has nearly 5,000 employees at more than 18 sites in the Washington area, mostly in Montgomery County. Most of them will shift to the two new sites, said Don McLearn, an agency spokesman.

Many of those employees work in old, inadequate laboratories, Maryland members of Congress say. "They've been working in dreadful facilities," said Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Once set as a $1.2 billion project by the Reagan administration, the plan to consolidate FDA operations was scaled back to $424 million by the Bush administration in late 1992.

Although Congress has appropriated $274 million, none of the money was spent as the FDA, Bush administration budget officials and Maryland members of Congress wrangled over its size and scope.

With President Clinton's election, Marylanders in Congress pressed anew for the more expansive consolidation. Their answer was delivered this week to Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski by Leon E. Panetta, Mr. Clinton's budget director.

The project was never in danger of being scrapped, said Thurman Davis, regional administrator for the General Services Administration. "The difference was whether we do a total consolidation or a partial consolidation," he said.

But a Capitol Hill aide said the Bush administration's decision in November 1992 to scale back the consolidation "could not be accomplished" because it was unrealistic. Thus, he said, the entire project was in jeopardy.

Most of the consolidation will occur in Montgomery County, where a $675 million office-and-research campus for the FDA's work in medicine and drugs will be will be built on a 350- to 400-acre site, probably in the Interstate 270 corridor.

The site has not been selected. The GSA plans to ask landowners for site proposals this year and hopes to begin construction by late 1996, Mr. Davis said.

Compared with other Montgomery County construction projects, this "certainly is one of the largest in recent history," said Jon A. Gerson, Montgomery County's economic development director.

More important than the 7,000 construction jobs the project will generate and the 5,600 people who will work there when it is completed is the construction and commercial activity the project will spawn.

"If the Montgomery County economy were a shopping mall," Mr. Gerson said, "the research labs and related private companies would serve as the anchor stores" that draw other businesses.

"The FDA consolidation will help us to position Montgomery County as an international biomedical research center," he said.

There now are nearly 500 biotech companies in the county, he said.

In Prince George's County, the FDA will spend $200 million on new food safety, nutrition and veterinary medicine facilities. Mr. Davis said the 100-acre site will be on FDA land off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway at the Department of Agriculture's Research Center. Eventually, 1,400 people will work there.

The 470,000-square-foot project is less than half the size of a 1.1-million-square-foot Internal Revenue Service installation being built in Beltsville. And it is less than a quarter the size of a 2 million-square-foot National Archives facility nearing completion in College Park, said Dennis Murphy, who heads the county's economic development operation.

"This is kind of midlevel," he said of the project's scope. But he noted that it will bring a $53 million federal payroll to the county and generate 1,100 county jobs outside the FDA.

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