Woodlawn profits from federal agencies

Business: Thousands of government workers provide the `economic engine' for the local economy.

Economic Impact

September 26, 2004|By Joe Eaton and Adam M. Rosen | Joe Eaton and Adam M. Rosen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sydney Brice, 16, is too young to receive a Social Security check, but like many others in western Baltimore County, she benefits from the federal agency in her backyard.

The Woodlawn High School junior made $5.25 an hour this summer serving shaved ice at Summer Snow, a seasonal stand across Security Boulevard from the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn. Most of her customers were agency employees.

"On a hot day, there might be 20 of them standing in line waiting," she said.

From low-overhead operations like Summer Snow to corporations with multimillion-dollar federal contracts, the Baltimore County businesses that profit from federal agencies in Woodlawn are a sign of the widespread influence those agencies have on the local economy.

The Social Security Administration, with 9,800 employees, is the largest employer in the county. It occupies a sprawling campus in Woodlawn with its own ZIP code. Agency spokesman Mark Hinkle said the agency pays $700 million a year in salaries to its employees in Maryland.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, with 3,000 employees, is the third-largest employer in the county. The 960,000-square-foot campus, less than two miles from the Social Security Administration, is surrounded by new shopping centers and restaurants where agency employees gather for lunch.

Between the two agencies, Security Boulevard and feeder roads are lined with car dealerships, hotels, a shopping mall and gas stations. Fronda Cohen, director of marketing and communications for the county Department of Economic Development, said the agencies are "the economic engine" in Woodlawn.

"Look at the hotels. It seems like a strange place to have so many of them. None of that would be here without the agencies," Cohen said.

Jay Angle, owner of the Salsa Grill on Security Boulevard, said he moved his business to Woodlawn because of the large customer base from the federal agencies. "Lunch is what keeps us in business," he said, noting that all of his customers at the time of the interview were from Social Security.

Computing needs

But the economic effect of the agencies goes far beyond their employment numbers and the stores where their employees shop and eat lunch. Their database management and software needs have turned the county into a hotbed for information technology companies.

The Social Security Administration makes $50 million worth of payments monthly and issues 17 million Social Security cards annually, said Michael Leff, a program manager for Lockheed Martin Information Systems, which has 1,000 employees in Woodlawn to provide information technology services to both agencies. "We assist them with developing their I.T. systems to support the delivery of these services to the citizen," Leff said.

So do many other Baltimore County businesses. ViPS Inc., a health consulting and software firm in Towson, which was acquired last month by the New Jersey firm WebMD Corp. for $160 million, got its start providing software solutions to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Scores of smaller companies also compete for contracts to provide information technology services to the agencies, Cohen said.

These businesses have created a strong job market for workers with computer and information systems skills.

Origins

The story of how Woodlawn won two federal agencies is a tale of luck and political tenacity. Established in 1935 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies, the Social Security Administration was placed in downtown Baltimore.

To accommodate the expanding agency's need for space, its offices were moved to Woodlawn, where a large and accessible tract was available, in 1960.

In the early 1990s, the agency that became CMS proposed establishing a headquarters away from the Social Security Administration campus - where most of its offices had been housed since 1965 - but then-Rep. Helen Delich Bentley led an effort to keep the agency in Woodlawn.

Bentley said Baltimore City leaders wanted to move the agency to downtown Baltimore, but she used her position on the House Appropriations Committee to persuade them to give up their efforts.

"I said to [former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke], `I want to remind you that as a member of Congress, I have been very good to the city. If I were you, I would bow out,'" she said. "I told him I would make damn sure it will cost the city $100 million" if the agency moved to Baltimore.

Bentley said businesses that line Security Boulevard in Woodlawn are a direct result of the political fights that kept both agencies in Woodlawn. "All of that [development] depends on people, and the people are there because of the agencies," Bentley said.

The agencies keep a low profile and Cohen thinks that many people in the area do not appreciate their significance.

But the evidence of the agencies' influence is everywhere, from the information technology companies to the snow cone stand where Brice sold about $500 worth of shaved ice in five hours on a recent summer day.

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