Hunt Valley gets light rail line Governor will open new route tomorrow

September 08, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The 4.5-mile extension of the Central Light Rail Line will open to Hunt Valley tomorrow, promising an easier commute for area workers and a boost for the 35-year-old corporate center.

With the center rebounding from defense cuts and a $45 million expansion planned for the Hunt Valley Mall, business leaders hope the rail link will bring additional workers and provide a bonus to traveling executives.

But even as area businesses welcome the five-stop extension, they are stepping up security as a precaution against the crime that has plagued some other light rail stops.

"We feel it will have a positive impact on the mall," said general manager Frederick C. Paine. "But we want to be prepared. We've always had a good safety record, and we want to keep it that way."

The $33 million link will open officially at 10 a.m. when Gov. Parris N. Glendening rides the first train into the Hunt Valley station. The celebration will continue Friday with a job fair, and on Saturday with a 5-kilometer race.

Catherine Williams, a housekeeping supervisor at the Hunt Valley Mall, can hardly wait for the new service that will ease the commute from her Baltimore home.

"I think it will be great," she said. "It will cut my time of travel."

Williams, who lives near the Johns Hopkins University, now leaves home at 5: 45 a.m. and takes two buses and the light rail to get to work by 7: 30 a.m. She figures that the Hunt Valley extension, which ends at the mall parking lot, will shave at least 45 minutes off her commute.

In addition to the Hunt Valley Mall station, trains will also stop at Warren, Gilroy, McCormick and Pepper roads.

The Maryland Transit Administration believes that by 2005, about 3,000 riders a day will take the light rail line to Hunt Valley -- one of three extensions opening this year. Service to Penn Station in Baltimore and to Baltimore-Washington International Airport is to begin in November.

Overall ridership on the 30-mile system is expected to rise from 22,000 to 36,000 in the next three years, MTA officials said.

Most of the more than 300 Hunt Valley companies welcome the light rail extension as a way to bring in more workers and increase the region's prestige, said Jack Gurecki, chairman of the Hunt Valley Business Forum.

"We were in favor of it and still are," he said. "The mere fact that Hunt Valley is served by a modern commuter link has a positive influence on people wanting to do business up here."

When a subsidiary of spice maker McCormick & Co. laid out the industrial park in 1962, it was a natural spur on an old trade route between Baltimore and Pennsylvania. Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. was the first to open an office there; McCormick moved its headquarters from the city in 1964. Becton Dickinson, Western Electric, Westinghouse, General Register and Meineke soon followed.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Hunt Valley was Baltimore County's premiere business address.

But defense cuts in the late 1980s and the growth of Owings Mills and White Marsh took their toll on Hunt Valley. Several major employers -- including Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group, PHH Corp. and EA Engineering, Science & Technology -- closed or scaled back operations.

The area appears to have rebounded. More than 800,000 square feet of business space was leased or purchased between 1995 and 1996, and more than 2,000 jobs were created or retained in the area, according to the county department of economic development.

And the long-suffering Hunt Valley Mall, once labeled "Death Valley" for its lack of tenants and shoppers, is about to start a major renovation that will bring a Wal-Mart, a 12-screen cinema, a bank and three new restaurants, as well as many smaller retailers.

Hunt Valley, said Economic Development Director Robert L. Hannon, "remains a prestigious address."

A number of manufacturers remain, including McCormick & Co., AAI and Memtec. But the area is increasingly a center for financial services, insurance and high technology companies.

Integrated Health Services, the nation's largest provider of post-hospital care, is building a corporate headquarters in Loveton at the north end of the Hunt Valley corridor.

MBNA, the credit-card giant, is opening a regional headquarters in a former PHH building and expects to hire about 3,000 workers.

While Hunt Valley's industrial vacancy rate is 22 percent, the office vacancy rate is less than 10 percent, according to the Realty Information Group in Bethesda.

In response to the new mix of tenants, the Rouse Co., which owns 1.8 million square feet of business space in the area, has converted some manufacturing and warehouse facilities to offices.

"I'm very bullish on Hunt Valley," said Sandy Sadler, general manager of Rouse's Hunt Valley portfolio.

Company officials say the light rail extension will make it easier to fill entry-level jobs because workers no longer will need to have their own cars or face an arduous commute.

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