Area vying to be home to high tech

Ameritrade move shows county's on its way, officials say

Aim is for `critical mass'

Residents welcome Net-connected firms into neighborhoods

August 04, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Politicians, moved by stories of bountiful public offerings and visions of young millionaires thriving in office cubicles, dream of creating the next Silicon Valley in their own back yards.

Competition to nab companies that have an Internet niche has become fierce.

William Badger, head of the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corp., calculates that his office faces 15,000 competitors in trying to land the 300 high-tech businesses that scout for office space at any one time.

So when online brokerage Ameritrade Holding Corp. formally announced yesterday that it will build a $26 million complex in western Anne Arundel County, state and county leaders hailed the arrival as a harbinger of something even bigger.

"There's a point where you have enough of these businesses that you hit a takeoff point, a point at which other businesses start to say, `Hey, I've got to be near these people,' " said Richard C. Mike Lewin, who heads the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "We've reached critical mass."

County Executive Janet S. Owens also declared Anne Arundel on its way. In an interview yesterday, she listed a half-dozen companies contributing to the critical mass Lewin talks about. They include Northrop Grumman, USInternetworking, Ciena Corp., and ARINC.

"This is a vision we are aggressively trying to promote," she said. "And I think we're making tremendous progress."

Still, it won't be easy to build Anne Arundel's reputation as a high-tech hub on the order of such thriving technology centers as northern California, Austin, Texas, Seattle and northern Virginia.

The competition will continue to be intense, Badger said, because "technology deals are the cream of the crop."

High-tech benefits

When Ameritrade opens in Annapolis Junction next year, it won't just add 300 jobs. It will add 300 high-paying jobs.

Tom Lewis, the co-chief executive officer, boasts that the Nebraska-based company has made 70 employees millionaires, and he promises to hire workers in Maryland at an average annual salary of roughly $75,000.

For politicians in a county that suffers under the weight of a limit on taxes, such an infusion of new revenue is highly appealing. Especially because -- unlike factories and industrial plants -- residents seem to crave these companies as neighbors.

Jeanne F. Mignon, the chairman of a citizen committee on land use in western Arundel, explained why: "The don't tend to pollute, they bring well-paid, well-educated people into the community and they invest in their neighborhood."

She added: "We never stop talking about how much we want to see this become a high-tech center," she said. "It would be the best thing that could happen to us."

The National Business Park, where Ameritrade's 120,000-square-foot building is being built, is a 175-acre complex that includes such tenants as the National Security Agency, Intel Corp., Applied Signal Technology, Stanford Telecom and Wang Global Services.

Room to move

Contrary to the notion that a core of technology companies attracts even more, Lewis said it was the absence of similar outfits that helped seal Ameritrade's decision to pick Maryland over other appealing offers.

"The Silicon Valley and Virginia have attracted large amounts of talent, but they have really become oversaturated," Lewis said. "To go there and compete is very difficult. Salaries are at a premium, the cost of real estate is at a premium."

"It's extremely hard to break in and hire the numbers of people we wanted," Lewis said.

Annapolis Junction, an area near the Howard County border with easy access to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and major highways, was a powerful draw, he said. It also did not hurt that both Lewis and the company's chief financial officer, James Ditmore, both worked for USF&G in Baltimore and knew the area.

Officials said the final key to the deal was a package of tax incentives and training support the state offered. Nether Lewis nor state officials will discuss details of the package. But if the state spent freely on the company, residents like Mignon say that's just fine.

"I think they should be at least as nice to them as they were to [Baltimore Ravens owner] Art Modell," she said.

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