Fair tries to lure skeptical N.J. workers

June 23, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

FORT MONMOUTH, N.J. -- For the first time since the military announced that thousands of jobs here would be shifting to Maryland, state and local officials descended upon this suburban beach town to encourage military workers to follow their jobs south.

One of the more ominous signs at yesterday's relocation fair, the first of a three-day event just off-post, was a big black board near the front of a ballroom where workers wrote questions on index cards. None related to Maryland. Instead they were about how to avoid moving.

"When will teleconferencing be available?" asked one.

"Can I be reimbursed if I commute to Aberdeen?" asked another.

"Where are the realtors from Pennsylvania and Delaware?"

With several years before the military requires that the jobs move, Maryland officials said they believe they are making progress with their marketing efforts. On Wednesday, a town hall-style meeting - broadcast on computers across the country over a closed-circuit feed - helped address questions such as the quality of schools, property taxes and environmental cleanup at Aberdeen Proving Ground. That night, businessmen schmoozed over crab balls and bacon scallops in a hotel conference room.

"The people in Maryland, it really appears like they want us to be there," military manager Rosemarie LaMacchia said as she stuffed free pamphlets into a blue bag hanging from her wrist.

Hundreds of workers took a break from their jobs yesterday and filtered in and out of the Gibbs Hall Officers' Club, picking up packets of Old Bay and free tickets to Aberdeen IronBirds games at Ripken Stadium.

"As different as we might be, we're attractive in different ways too," said J. Michael Hayes, a retired general and director of military and federal affairs for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "There's no way we can tell them we'll replicate the New York experience; it's just not in the cards."

The dichotomy of Fort Monmouth's work force has complicated Maryland's marketing drive. Residents of Monmouth County's various boroughs consider themselves suburban New Yorkers and are a 10-minute drive from the beach, passing homes owned by Bruce Springsteen and Paul Newman along the way. Yet others who work at the base commute 45 minutes from points south, where homes are cheaper.

So while a slideshow displaying the average home price in Harford County at just more than $300,000 may entice one family, it makes others shudder. While residents of Eatontown, N.J., imagine the possibilities when their property taxes drop from $13,000 to $6,000 in Harford, others think of how they'll have to cut back. Many said they feared that the housing market - already on the upswing - would escalate out of their reach before the Army mandates their move.

"If I've gotta go, I've gotta go, but I don't know how I'm going to be able to duplicate my living situation now," said Richard Zaccarine, a 51-year-old logistics manager whose $280,000, five-bedroom house in Brick, N.J., is tailored to fit the needs of his three handicapped children. He said he hasn't been able to find a comparable home in Harford on the Internet for less than $400,000.

Harford County officials believe they have the infrastructure to prevent workers such as Zaccarine from being outpriced. For now, they seem more intent on trying to accommodate the more affluent tastes with a burgeoning selection of new waterfront and luxury housing choices.

"We are not where you are - we don't claim to be," Aberdeen Mayor S. Fred Simmons told a group of fair-goers during a presentation he gave on the city. "But we are moving in that direction. We promise we will get ready, no matter what it takes."

After Simmons finished, residents tossed several questions his way: Will the city's expanding areas have city water and garbage pickup? Do the towns flow into one another like Monmouth County, where a visitor can pass through six boroughs in a 10-minute drive? Are there health spas and recreation centers?

"We're used to having so much culture here, especially in the shore," said Christine Schulze, who built a 3,600-square-foot "dream house" two years ago and is reluctant to move. "It's not as built up [in Maryland], and I get bored easily. New Jersey has a lot to offer - Maryland, I don't know."

Though uncertainty about Maryland pervaded yesterday's fair, Monmouth residents have been doing their homework, whether searching for homes on the Web or signing up for Google news alerts that let them know when a news article mentions Aberdeen (one man even questioned a real estate agent about problems associated with MTBE contamination in the Fallston area). Some, such as management analyst Ira Sukeiniks, 53, have visited recently.

Sukeiniks said he is eligible to retire in July but probably will keep working after his job moves. He said he envisions himself sharing a Harford rental property with co-workers during the week, an idea voiced by many.

Meanwhile, some younger workers are banking on Sukeiniks and others his age retiring.

"That's the only reason I would go, quite frankly," said Bryant Jackson, 25. "The job advancement opportunities are going to skyrocket."

Jackson toured the fair with friend Darlene Worsley, an electrical engineer who said her roots are in New Jersey.

She scoffed when Simmons pointed to a map and boasted about the Chesapeake Bay, which has been advertised as an alternative to their beach lifestyle.

"I'm born and raised here in Jersey, this is my home, and my work is only five minutes away," she told him.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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