Defense jackpot

November 10, 2005

When the Defense Department set out to consolidate its domestic bases, Maryland officials sought to win big. They not only prevailed - with Maryland gaining more than any other state from the realignment plan that became law Tuesday - they hit the jackpot.

The latest estimates - and they keep growing - are that the plan will bring more than 11,000 new jobs to the Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade within five years.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Add another 7,500 new jobs expected at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. And then add two or three private contracting jobs for every military and NSA job.

The result: Officials now are seriously planning on 60,000 new high-tech, often high-paying defense and security jobs - about 20,000 in and around Harford County and about 40,000 in and around Anne Arundel County. This is a sudden 65-percent increase in the job growth that had been anticipated for this region over the next five years. And, officials say, that's only the start because the functions being transferred here are critical to the military's future.

Some proclaim that nothing like this has happened to Maryland's economy since the days of World War II. It's a great coup for the state and for the Ehrlich administration. It reinforces Maryland's already high standing in research and development. And that's got Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's economic development chief, crowing about the state goal of "technological supremacy."

But state and local officials should also heed the old adage about being careful what you wish for. All these new jobs could mean more than 100,000 new residents, doubling the region's anticipated population growth for the next five years. These new residents will need homes, water and sewer service, roads and schools, and more.

Harford officials have drawn up a long list of needed big-ticket improvements, and Anne Arundel officials say they are well into improving the roads and adding new housing near Fort Meade. Meanwhile, the latest Sun poll, released this week, shows sizable discontent over the already fast pace of growth in Maryland's largest suburban counties - discontent that very likely will accelerate with this growth spurt.

State and local officials must do a better job of managing this defense boom than they did in the 1990s, when a rapid buildup at Patuxent River Naval Air Station overwhelmed St. Mary's County. Road and school improvements are only part of the answer; a strong state and local commitment to channeling this growth to developed areas in need of renewal may be just as important.

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