High-tech oasis-in-waiting

3DI at heart of effort to turn Easton into a center of good jobs

Shore industry

May 16, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- A little-known firm using cutting-edge geographic-imaging techniques is promising to transform the staid capital of the Colonial Eastern Shore into a high-tech employment center.

Pioneering technology that has far-reaching implications for precision farming, environmental monitoring, land-use cartography and a host of other practical applications, 3DI LLC has caught the attention of National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials.

Led by 3DI Chairman Monty L. Deel, a regional consortium that includes local governments, colleges and economic development officials is awaiting approval of a $280,000 state grant to establish one of the space agency's regional application centers at Easton Airport. Officials expect high-tech firms to flock to the area.

The center would act as a conduit for government research data that could be used by private firms, with NASA offering assistance but taking no direct role in the center's operation, said William Campbell, who runs the regional program out of the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

"For it to work, it has to be a truly regional effort," Campbell said. "It's all exciting, but there are a lot of questions. It has to be executed by somebody with vision and energy."

Campbell said the agency has helped set up 13 centers around the country -- all designed to spur the growth of high-tech firms.

"I think it's very clear that you are going to see more high-tech outfits locating in the Easton area," said Memo Diriker, who heads the Enterprise Development Group, a business advisory and research team at Salisbury State University.

"These types of businesses tend to cluster, but they are not bound by the same location-dependent transportation needs that are the rule for the manufacturing industry," Diriker said. "A high-tech firm needs to be where there are fiber-optic and phone lines and satellites."

3DI's aggressive expansion, marked by the acquisitions of three companies in the past six months, includes a new 20,000-square-foot headquarters building in the Easton Technology Center -- a 150-acre site tailor-made for companies like Deel's.

"Technology is the key word here," said Lawrence L. Davis, a commercial real estate broker who is handling leasing at the center and who heads the Talbot County Economic Development Commission.

"It's clearly designed for this kind of user," Davis said. "We've got fiber optics already in place, right along with the gas, water and sewer. We've even deeded a small piece to Bell Atlantic to set up a fiber-optic terminal."

Koch Industries is owner

Last fall, 3DI was acquired by Kansas-based Koch Industries Inc., the nation's second-largest privately held company, with sales of about $36 billion. Flush with an infusion of cash from Koch, 3DI has acquired competitors and firms that employ related technology.

In less than a year, the company has grown from 30 employees to 200 working in 14 offices in the United States, Canada and Britain, and Deel projects annual revenue of $20 million. By the end of the year, 300 people are expected to be working at the new Easton headquarters building, which would make 3DI the third- or fourth-largest employer in Talbot.

"Technology has gone from something that was very esoteric, academic and research- or defense-oriented to the very practical," Deel said. "There are real life commercial applications almost everywhere you look."

At the heart of the emerging GSI (Geographic Information System) industry is traditional airborne photography souped up with a dizzying array of computer-generated enhancements used to produce everything from topographic and plainmetric maps to infrared photography.

Using aerial photography and satellite imagery, cartographers have produced projects as significant as a map of the world for the National Geographic Society and as small as a tourist map for the Talbot County tourism office.

For more than two years, three members of the company's professional services group have mapped every building -- every structure with a phone -- in booming Sussex County, Del. The information is the critical link in a new 911 emergency services system.

The client list includes corporate agricultural firms that need crop-management information gathered by long-range sensors and utility companies that can survey their transmission lines for trouble spots with hand-held computers.

Municipal and county governments can map their road and utility infrastructure, then monitor the system by pointing to a spot on a computer screen. Maryland might be able to track future Pfiesteria outbreaks using the technology. The company has produced a map showing every poultry farm in the Nanticoke River Watershed for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Market appears endless

Industry leaders say the market is almost endless.

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