County braces for growth spurt

Officials racing to accommodate impact of BRAC

May 14, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

It's not a myth, it's not hype and it's not wild speculation.

Fort Meade will soon undergo a substantial expansion, and unprecedented growth associated with it is about to be unleashed on Anne Arundel County.

At least 20,000 government and private-sector jobs are expected to land in and around the 5,400-acre Army post over the next decade - or maybe it will be 40,000. No one knows for sure. Local, state and federal officials are trying to assess the impact of the base realignment and closure process, known as BRAC, approved last year by President Bush and Congress.

But county leaders say that whatever the final numbers, they have a priority list in place to accommodate the growth.

"It's not an issue if it's going to happen," said county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. "The key for us is [ensuring] this going to happen in a systematic way, in a way that can we stay ahead of the curve."

Land is being cleared from Laurel to Hanover to Odenton to begin building about 4,000 houses and millions of square feet of office and retail space that will accommodate the military expansion.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure upgrades will be needed to support the defense expansion.

The jobs will start arriving in 18 months, with the rush predicted in 2009 and 2010. It will be led by a wave of 4,000 employees of the Defense Information System Agency, which is relocating from Fort Belvoir, Va.

"The problem is the locomotive has started, and it's going extremely fast," County Executive Janet S. Owens told fellow Democrats at a March meeting in Odenton.

County and state leaders are pressing ahead to fund an expansion of Route 175 around the perimeter of Fort Meade; to build a parking garage for the MARC station in Odenton; to study expanding Route 198 east of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway; and to spur the monumental effort of extending the Washington Metro to Fort Meade and on to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

In January, the County Council approved an Owens initiative to allow Laurel Park to build 1 million square feet or more of retail space at the thoroughbred racetrack.

The county's legislative delegation also scored a big victory for Owens on the final day of the 90-day General Assembly, pushing through legislation to increase the number of liquor licenses that a restaurant owner can hold from two to six.

Major restaurant chains, including Outback Steakhouse, had been calling for more liquor licenses to expand their reach into West County, around BWI, and into revitalization areas from Mayo to Pasadena. They also want to add establishments at expansive planned developments, such as the $400 million Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole and the long-awaited Odenton Town Center.

On the education front, Owens has garnered the support of defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. as a first step for building a proposed math-and-science magnet program at Meade High School. Owens and Fort Meade's commander, Col. Kenneth O. McCreedy, are seeking public and private partners, including the National Security Agency, to expand the high school and encourage families from Northern Virginia and other parts of the country to relocate to Anne Arundel County.

Owens recently got council approval to form a county committee, consisting of local and regional interests, that can petition for federal funds for planning studies, which could further prioritize infrastructure projects.

Rutter said he hoped the committee would help spread the word about the future.

"The big thing is marketing," Rutter said. "Believe it or not, there's people coming from all over the county, and they want to know where is Anne Arundel County."

Independent of the anticipated growth from Fort Meade over the next decade, the county's population has continued to expand. More than 138,000 residents moved into the county between 1980 and 2004, pushing the population to more than 504,000, according to census figures.

The county is turning out more than 2,000 homes a year, but even at that clip, according to housing experts and economists, Anne Arundel is not capable of accommodating all the Fort Meade workers coming in.

County leaders acknowledge the challenges. They expect Howard County, which is less than a mile west of Fort Meade and is home to several defense contractors that serve the National Security Agency, to share the burden - and benefits - of the jobs that will come to the Army post and the residences that must be built to house those workers.

Prince George's County has thousands of underdeveloped acres around Laurel that could be used to house some of the work force, state officials say. State leaders have also pointed to Baltimore, with its abundance of affordable housing and established transportation network, as a way to handle the growth.

"This has got to be a regional approach," Rutter said.

Anne Arundel officials expect to tap the existing base of federal and high-tech workers who already live in Anne Arundel. More than 100,000 residents leave the county each day for work. Sixty thousand head to the Washington area, and many of them are workers who might be interested in jobs around Fort Meade.

Officials also expect a portion of workers who live in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Northern Virginia will choose to commute rather than relocate.

Expanding Metro and MARC is a key component of the planning, local and state officials say.

"The last thing anyone wants to do is bring Montgomery County and Northern Virginia traffic to this county," Owens said.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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