Charles County officials envision high-technology research center

Md. to provide 50 acres

energetics lab is the goal

July 07, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The state agreed yesterday to give Charles County 50 acres that local officials hope to turn into a high-tech research hub that will create jobs and secure the U.S. Navy's presence there for years to come.

The land would be used for an energetics laboratory, which would develop explosives and propellants in partnership with the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head. Wayne Cooper, president of the county Board of Commissioners, said the facility could spin off dozens of businesses.

"The energetics technology center, we feel, is the key to the economic engine of Charles County," Cooper said.

The deal snagged for a few months because Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration was reluctant to relinquish public land while the legislature was considering new restrictions on the sale of state parcels. But the Board of Public Works approved the transfer yesterday, and local officials said they hope to break ground within two years on the $10 million center. Officials are seeking federal money to build it.

Tara Landis, a spokeswoman for the Indian Head Navy base, said Southern Maryland has become the world center for energetics, a field that involves a complex blend of mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering, as well as other disciplines.

About 900 scientists and technicians work in energetics on the base, and the new center would help further their research through the base's partnership with the University of Maryland and the private sector.

Energetics has grown more complicated as weapons systems have advanced in recent years. Many of the most high-tech explosives being used in Afghanistan and Iraq were developed at Indian Head, Landis said.

The concentration of research and training in Southern Maryland and the partnership with the University of Maryland has been critical to that success, she said. "Their professors work with our scientists and engineers on solutions to Navy programs, and then our employees take classes at the university. So it's been a really win-win combination for both parties," she said.

The energetics center would take up a small part of the 50-acre parcel, but economic development officials expect it to be ringed by dozens of other businesses supporting it and finding new applications for the technology developed there.

Eileen Ryan, president of the College of Southern Maryland, which is working with the Navy and the University of Maryland, College Park on energetics, said the field has demonstrated its application to private industry. For example, energetics technology not only makes bombs explode but also makes vehicle airbags deploy, she said.

The Ehrlich administration backed the project to create jobs in Charles County and to prevent the Navy from considering closing the base in the future, said Economic Development Secretary Aris Melissaratos. But the administration was cautious about moving forward with the land transfer because of a law the General Assembly passed in the spring restricting land sales.

In the wake of an aborted plan by the Ehrlich administration last fall to sell a parcel of preservation land in St. Mary's County to a Baltimore construction company owner, the legislature passed new restrictions on the state's ability to dispose of land bought as open space or parkland or for preservation.

The parcel in Charles County is part of Chapman's Landing, a 2,225-acre plot that the state bought for $25.3 million under Gov. Parris N. Glendening to protect the land from development. But local officials say the 50-acre parcel where the energetics lab would be built is apart from the bulk of the land and was always intended for industrial development.

"The delay had to do with the uncertainty over what the new process might be," Melissaratos said. "There was a new law passed, and neither the legislative branch nor the executive branch nor the judicial branch had realized the impact of those laws."

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, said he worked to get a joint committee of delegates and senators to endorse the project last month in an effort to end the delay. The state must persuade the U.S. Senate to add about $6 million to its appropriation for the center, he said.

The House of Representatives has already included $4 million for the project in its budget plan, and Middleton said he worried that any uncertainty about the state's commitment for the project could have been a stumbling block for a project he sees as key to Charles County's future.

"There are a lot of activities that can be built around an energetics research lab, and we were just hoping this will not only be a good anchor for the parcel but also attract other types of business to Charles County," Middleton said. "This project merits everything that I could do to get it approved by the Board of Public Works as expeditiously as possible."

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