Fort Meade: Camp becomes a campus Update: Changes in the military open the way for new uses of the Anne Arundel base, with a dominant civilian presence.

June 19, 1998|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Fort George G. Meade was once a bustling combat support center, home to thousands of troops trained to storm the beaches of Normandy and to fight in the Rhineland.

Today, those training grounds are part of a federal wildlife refuge, and Fort Meade's employees are more likely to wear suits than fatigues.

Civilians outnumber military personnel nearly three to one, and federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Library of Congress are carving out space for more employees on the 5,415-acre base.

Even the sounds of life on the base have changed -- cadences once chanted by jogging troops have been replaced by the drone of commuters' cars.

Driven by Army reorganizations and federal laws that closed some bases, Fort Meade has radically altered its face and character in recent years -- moving from military powerhouse to federal campus.

Although the base covers less than half the area it did just a decade ago, it has more than replaced the lost soldiers with workers in military-related and technology industries. Several new tenants will add an estimated 1,730 civilian and military jobs by 2001.

What has emerged are a different Fort Meade and a different military.

"They used to be rowdy because they were . . . on their way to war," says Marc Brady Jr., recalling a day when businesses such as his family's Fort Liquors boomed, and soldiers packed the bars across Route 175.

"It's a lot calmer now."

Today, the base's troops work side by side with civilians. You'll find soldiers in fatigues sitting among businesswomen at the lunch tables in the Bangkok Kitchen, another business on the Route 175 strip. But you won't find soldiers relaxing in the Non-Commissioned Officers Club after hours -- it's been converted into a training center.

"After 9 p.m. there's nobody here," says Dennis Patel, who runs the nearby Food Max and changed his business hours to accommodate post workers. "And there's no one here before 5 in the morning."

In 1988, the first federal Base Realignment and Closure Act forced Fort Meade to give up more than half its land, signaling its transformation to an administrative post. Since then, three garrison commanders have continued the vision of former commander Col. Kent D. Menser: to create an office park focusing on intelligence, education, technology and research.

The presence of the National Security Agency made the base a magnet for smaller defense intelligence groups, especially those that handled similar work or worked closely with NSA.

For agencies such as the EPA -- which expands the technological base -- Fort Meade offered prime real estate between Baltimore and Washington at an unbeatable price.

The agency got the land along Route 175 rent-free for 25 years with the option to lease for another 25 years. It will pay its share of utility bills, though.

The EPA is consolidating its Annapolis and Beltsville laboratories, which analyze chemicals in water, soil and pesticides. It will bring 143 jobs in December to the new 140,000-square-foot lab.

"We chose Fort Meade after we found out the prices of property in the area. It would save substantial money to locate on federal land," said James Newsom, an EPA administrator.

The Library of Congress was given 100 acres along Route 32, where it will erect several 8,000-square-foot storage buildings for books over 50 years. Each building will hold 2 million items.

Long before these agencies appeared on the base, Fort Meade handled trainloads of combat troops.

During World War I, Camp George G. Meade, named for the Union commander at the Battle of Gettysburg, trained more than 100,000 soldiers who fought in the trenches of northern France and central Europe.

From World War II through the Persian Gulf war in 1991, several million more troops, the 85th Medical Battalion, 76th Engineering Battalion, Headquarters Command Battalion and the 519th Military Police Battalion honed their skills with combat exercises on what then was a 13,671-acre base.

An exodus began in 1983 when the engineering battalion relocated to Fort Drum, N.Y. The medics and MPs left in 1992.

The following year, the base made the official switch from combat support to administrative support, and later cutbacks reached the Headquarters Command, Kimbrough Hospital and a training brigade.

Together, these changes eliminated more than 1,600 military and civilian jobs.

The most public departure came in 1995 when the 1st U.S. Army, whose soldiers were the first to break the German Siegfried line and first to cross the Rhine in World War II, moved its headquarters to Fort Gillem, Ga., taking 232 soldiers. The 1st U.S. Army Band also was disbanded -- another 40 soldiers gone.

The base was shrinking, too. By 1992, Fort Meade had transferred 8,100 acres of former military training ground to the Patuxent Research Refuge, more than doubling its size.

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