Office parks wanted at I-95 exit

October 24, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Drivers zipping up Interstate 95 from Baltimore to Philadelphia can pull off almost any exit to rest at a hotel, shop at a mall, even grab a Starbucks coffee on the lonely stretch past the Susquehanna River through rural Cecil County.

However, travelers who stop at Exit 89, where Route 155 snakes through to the waterfront city of Havre de Grace, will find thickets, oaks and corn -- and maybe a dilapidated, old-time convenience store. The exit is one of the few along the corridor that lacks development.

That's about to change.

This month, 60 acres of the land that borders the exit will be put up for sale.

City and county officials envision office parks that will have little impact on the scenery while revving up the area's economy.

"That exit has the potential to flourish," said Tom Sadowski, Harford County's director for economic development.

The swath of land, rezoned in December from agricultural to mixed office employment use -- a new city zoning designation -- is prime real estate.

It is one of the few buildable areas left along the I-95 corridor, one of the county's most heavily traveled interstates, and is sandwiched among three economic, cultural and academic hot spots: Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore.

It is near Aberdeen Proving Ground, a potential windfall for government contractors. And the parcel is minutes from Havre de Grace's waterfront, a major attraction for tourists and relocating families.

The Barkers, a historic Harford family, own most of the land, said the family's trustee, Michael Leaf.

The family deliberated for years over plans for the land and recently decided to sell it. Much of it is farmed.

According to Leaf, the area is expected to attract regional and national businesses.

"It's an excellent location," Leaf said. "We can expect a lot of interest in it."

Several companies have contacted Leaf over the years, even before the family was prepared to sell the land, he said.

The city of Havre de Grace annexed the land in 2002 and, since then, it has been factored into both the city's and county's long-range development plans.

According to a 2002 county economic development report, Harford has been slow in shifting from an agricultural -- and maritime -- to a commercial-based economy. As a result, the county, strapped by burgeoning residential growth, has been seeking alternate revenue streams to meet the soaring demand for public services.

The report identified the technology sector as key to supporting the county's growth and outlined a strategy to attract these businesses.

The technology sector -- companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton and Nutramax Laboratories -- creates higher-paying jobs and increases tax revenue, Sadowski said.

The report also targeted Havre de Grace, an attractive municipality with room to grow, to house many of these companies.

City officials would like to see clusters of quiet, well-landscaped office parks that contain biotechnology, information technology and similar companies, said Havre de Grace Planning Director Al Henry.

They are not looking for housing developments, strip malls or warehouse structures, which the new zoning designation prohibits. It is the only section of the city with the designation of mixed office employment use, Henry added.

Such businesses help stabilize the economy and have little impact on city services. "It would bring in more people to the area, so more dollars would be spent in the city," Henry said. "I don't see any downside to it."

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