Last frontier

On Interstate 95

January 18, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Never mind that it has the East Coast's gold mine of a highway running straight through it. For decades Cecil County was the place that industry ignored.

Tucked in the northeast corner of the state, 12,000 people living in its biggest town, this 330-year-old county remains overwhelmingly farms and forests. A combination of habit and insufficient water and sewer pipelines produced years of relatively anemic economic development that even Interstate 95 couldn't overcome.

"We are the last great bastion of open space between Washington and New York," said local Farm Bureau President C. Ewing McDowell.

But county officials are finally making the pavement pay off.

With infrastructure improvements and comparatively cheap land, Cecil is starting to attract super-sized projects.

"What we have, and what so few other jurisdictions have, is land -- thousands of acres, all within a stone's throw of I-95," said Paul Gilbert, the county economic development director.

An IKEA distribution center under construction in Perryville will be the size of 18 Wal-Mart stores combined when it's finished -- one of the largest industrial projects in the state. Performance Food Group recently expanded its new facility in Elkton to 300,000 square feet, GE moved into 1 million square feet in a new Perryville business park at the end of last year, and another developer intends to build more than a million square feet nearby.

Meanwhile, a group of businessmen is buying 68 acres in North East to open an international mall that would act as the North American headquarters for at least 500 foreign companies -- making Cecil a magnet for business-to-business transactions if the plans work out.

And last week, a team of developers won final approval to turn the long-empty former naval training center in Port Deposit into a community of 1,250 houses with a 450-acre employment center. That's a big adjustment for the riverside town, which has 680 residents and a few dozen jobs.

Analysts say such sweeping change is largely about timing.

The wave of development that transformed Harford, Frederick and other outlying counties from quiet countryside to job hubs has finally found its way to Cecil County as other suburbs run out of space -- helping overcome the downside of a $5 toll to get in across the Susquehanna River. Growth has also been pushing in from Delaware, though that state pushed back a little Friday when it announced that it had lured a 250-employee operations center for AAA Mid-Atlantic to Newark from Cecil's Elkton.

"Cecil's on that tipping point right now," said Richard P. Clinch, a University of Baltimore economist studying work-force development in the county.

Then came GE

The largest landowner in Cecil, York-based Stewart Associates, initially held off developing a 1,000-acre property in the Perryville area because it lacked access to infrastructure. After years of talk, a county proposal to install water and sewer lines along U.S. 40 fell apart in the mid-1990s from lack of public support.

But as the market for land picked up, Stewart Associates decided to construct its own lines several miles to the nearest public systems to take advantage of a location that could accommodate huge distribution centers. It paid off -- as soon as the company began installing infrastructure in the Principio Business Park a little over a year ago, GE broke ground on its building.

In the past five years, the going rate for Cecil industrial land with appropriate infrastructure spiked from about $25,000 to $100,000 an acre, said Mike Vaughan, who's in charge of Maryland development for Stewart Associates.

Though the price is still less than those in Harford County or Delaware -- and some real-estate experts insist it's not into six figures yet -- the escalating land costs show that perceptions of the county are rapidly changing. For a long time it had a reputation less as a place to do business than as the spot for quickie weddings and -- as recently as the past decade -- Ku Klux Klan activity.

But Cecil, which sits at the intersection of three states, defies easy categorization.

Elkton, the county seat, is 50 miles from both Baltimore and Philadelphia and just 20 from Wilmington. Many of the county's 90,000 residents work out of state, and people talking football are just as likely to mean the Eagles instead of the other bird.

The county's spot at the head of the Chesapeake Bay means it's at once on the Eastern and Western shores, with lots of waterside land. It's gaining popularity as a bedroom community, but it somehow managed to add farm acreage in the past decade instead of losing ground. Cecil County Airport's single runway is tucked next to a field where horses graze.

"It has charm and potential, I think heretofore not understood, recognized or appreciated," said Richard Alter, president of Manekin LLC, who's gotten off the highway and gotten to know the county better as a member of the team that will redevelop the former Navy boot camp.

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