For business, growth spurt is in the works

7 new projects possible in commercial corridor

`It's quietly booming'

Schools, roads feel strain of added workers, activity

Harford County

January 19, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford County, one of the fastest-growing regions in the metropolitan area, shows no signs of slowing in the year ahead.

Seven major commercial projects are under way or are being considered for development this year in the Aberdeen-Edgewood-Bel Air triangle.

Robert G. Cassilly, a Bel Air lawyer and Republican member of the Harford County Council, welcomed the region's robust growth but said it presents some problems for residents, especially increasing pressure on schools and roads.

"It's quietly booming" is the way Vernon J. Thompson, assistant secretary for regional development at the state Department of Business and Economic Development, characterized the county's business activity and population growth that is fattening workers' wallets but putting a burden on its school and roads systems.

"From 1998 to 2002, our economic development office helped bring in more than $390 million in business investment and a new job potential of 4,500," County Executive James M. Harkins told a recent meeting of the Route 40 Business Association.

Over the same span, Harkins said, the county's total employment has risen by 9,147. Private-sector employment has jumped 20 percent, and the average weekly wage per worker has jumped 15 percent.

Things are not expected to change anytime soon.

"We expect to maintain this same level of activity this year," said J. Thomas Sadowski, the county's director of economic development.

Sadowski began running down a list of businesses, ranging from a large defense contractor to a distributor of medical products, which have either committed to new operations in the county or are considering a move to the area.

"The big anchor tenant - the force that makes other things happen in the county - is APG," Thompson said of the Aberdeen Proving Ground complex, which employs nearly 13,000 people and pumped more than $766 million into the regional economy last year.

APG could grow even more this year.

According to Sadowski, the State Department is looking at APG as its home for a new anti-terrorism and security training center.

"This was initially a $52 million project," he said, "but it has been expanded to $90 million."

The facility would consolidate the training of more than 7,000 foreign law enforcement officers and another 700 State Department workers at a 1,200-acre complex.

With a staff of 300, the center would train officers in security techniques, including protecting airports and ports.

"We are hopeful of getting a funding decision in the next couple of months," Sadowski said.

Another potentially big win for the county also involves the military.

Sadowski said General Dynamics Corp. is seeking a home for a $45 million factory to build a new advanced amphibious assault vehicle for the Marine Corps. The proving ground area is being considered as a site for the facility.

The tanklike vehicle will be used to transport up to 18 Marines at a time over land and water. It will be three times faster than vehicles now used by the Marines.

"This would be a big win for us," Sadowski said. "It would be a contract worth more than $9 billion over 10 years and would bring more than 300 jobs."

Norine Lyons, a spokeswoman for Falls Church, Va.-based General Dynamics, said 43 sites across the country have been vying for the plant. She said the list has been whittled to about a dozen and a location decision could come later this quarter.

Sadowski identified a mixed-use residential and commercial development project a few miles from the military base as "the hallmark of the county's Route 40 redevelopment effort."

He was referring to Water's Edge, on the shores of the Bush River in Belcamp at the site of the former Bata Shoe Co. manufacturing plant.

Clark Turner, who heads Clark Turner Cos., which is developing the 41-acre complex, said a four-story office building will be completed and ready for occupancy in early June. Before the end of the year, he said, ground will be broken on another office building and a waterfront restaurant.

"We're trying to build an environment that will make it easy for companies to attract workers and retain them," Turner said.

Plans call for 132 condominiums, selling for as much as $400,000 each, and 24 townhouses, to be priced at about $500,000 each. He said many of the homes have been sold before being built.

To make way for more commercial space, Turner said, the company will be tearing down this year the five-story shoe factory that dates to the 1920s.

Sadowski listed a number of other development projects that will be coming on line in the county this year. They include:

Completion of a $22 million, 80,000-square-foot Eastern Regional Technology Center for Battelle near Aberdeen. Battelle, one of the world largest research and development organizations, will initially employ 300 there, Sadowski said.

Medline Industries Inc.'s $12 million, 300,000-square-foot medical products processing and distribution center in Aberdeen. It will employ 40 workers, but the company plans to expand in the future and hire 60 more people.

Gemcraft Homes' construction of a new headquarters building in Forest Hill.

Old Castle Precast Co.'s completion of a $12 million concrete manufacturing plant near Edgewood.

Cassilly said the county's residential growth has been double the national average in recent years, and "this has put a real strain on our school system, and schools are expensive. You spend $40 million here and $40 million there and pretty soon you're running into real money."

He said the county's development has also outpaced its road capacity. "We were not as long-sighted as we should have been. We're going to have to do a better job of planning in the future."

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