Booming growth, difficult changes

St. Mary's offers lessons for other base expansions

September 19, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

LEXINGTON PARK -- From his office window here, Todd Morgan can see how the Pentagon's periodic shuffling of military bases has changed the face and pace of rural St. Mary's County.

The large white-walled complex where Morgan works brims with the offices of defense contractors huddled outside the gates of Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Jets streak overhead as cars and trucks surge by on a highway widened from two lanes to six to accommodate nearly 20,000 civilian and military workers toiling on and around the sprawling base.

"Ten years ago we were the great recipient of all those jobs coming from Northern Virginia," says Morgan, an executive with one of the contractors and president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, a local business group devoted to supporting the base. The air station's work force jumped by 5,000 in the late 1990s as the Defense Department moved operations here from the Washington area and elsewhere.

With the president's signature last week on a base realignment plan, Baltimore-area officials are anticipating a similar influx to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. State and local officials point to the Patuxent River expansion as a model for how to cope with a surge in employment at a military base.

Others, however, see it as a cautionary tale.

"If you take a ride down to St. Mary's County, you will see a phenomenal transformation," says Aris Melissaratos, state secretary of business and economic development.

Where most residents once got by raising tobacco or fishing, this county has a high-tech employment center that residents like to say contributes more to Maryland's economy than the port of Baltimore. There are a Starbucks, chain restaurants and big-box stores galore along Route 235, the main drag through the county.

The surge in employment at the base has not been all smooth sailing for a county that until two decades ago had seen relatively little change.

Preparations for base-related growth in St. Mary's were huge - and inadequate. State and local governments spent more than $250 million over a decade renovating and expanding public schools and widening Route 235 to the base. Officials recently spent $13 million to buy and demolish a dilapidated housing complex near the base, hoping to remove anything that might limit its operations and make it a candidate for closure.

Today, traffic flows more smoothly on the expanded highway but still backs up at rush hour, especially at the turnoff to Calvert County, where thousands of base workers live. And classrooms remain so crowded in parts of the county that residential development has been curtailed until new schools can be built.

"We're in essence right back where we started," says Joe Anderson, a former county commissioner who works for another of the defense contractors stationed outside the base's gates.

The growth has spawned new worries. While base expansion has eased Southern Maryland's chronic high unemployment and increased family incomes, the accompanying development boom has gobbled up farmland, depleted groundwater supplies, polluted streams feeding into the Chesapeake Bay and eroded the folksy country look and feel of a county steeped in history.

"The Navy base down here is one of the best things for the county and one of the worst things for the county," says James "Bubby" Norris, a Chaptico farmer. He raises goats, soybeans and grains on 300 acres but supplements his income with as nutrient management specialist working with other farmers to limit polluted runoff from their land.

Norris, 61, says the base and its attendant defense contracting have provided good-paying jobs close to home for his two daughters-in-law and his niece. But he says land prices are skyrocketing in the county as development pressures grow, crowding roads and changing the nature of the community.

"Back when I was a youngster, everybody knew everybody by name," Norris says. He says he recognizes fewer and fewer people on the roads and in the large chain stores and malls that have driven many of the county's small merchants out of business.

"We do have strains," acknowledges Morgan, a vice president with Eagan, McAllister & Associates who has lived in the county since 1979. "The school system in particular is strained."

With large-scale housing development barred under the county's adequate-public-facilities law until more classroom space can be made available, local officials have been struggling to find appropriate, affordable sites for schools. The county even tried to get land from the state, until that deal fell through amid controversy over the Ehrlich administration's moves to sell state-owned land, including some nature preserves and park sites.

Officials say that they are proud of how the county handled the base expansion but that the school crunch was unavoidable because of uncertainties about how many new students would show up. About 30 percent of base workers live outside the county.

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