BRAC seen as boon to Baltimore

City could provide housing in base realignment process, officials say

October 05, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

The impending military base realignment looms as Baltimore's opportunity to boost its population and contribute to the reversal in recent years of the decades-long flight of residents to the suburbs.

The plan, also known as Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), could bring as many as 40,000 jobs to Maryland as a result of expansions mainly at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

While much attention has been focused on expanding housing and improving infrastructure in suburban counties, Baltimore could figure prominently in the BRAC process by virtue of its housing stock, public transit and cultural amenities, business and government officials said.

"The city is right in the heart of both parts of BRAC, and it has infrastructure in place," said Daraius Irani, associate director of economic and work force development at Towson University, the site of a BRAC panel discussion presented yesterday by the Maryland Business Council.

Housing stock is critical to the realignment because Maryland's recent history of low unemployment could mean thousands will relocate to the state to fill the new positions. "The lack of slackness in employment has to translate to new households -- 40,000 jobs means 40,000 new households," said Anirban Basu, an economist who is chairman of the Sage Policy Group in Baltimore. "This will unleash mixed-used development and drive residential growth in a manner that has not been seen before in Maryland."

Baltimore is better positioned for an influx of new residents, said Gene Bracken, spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee, an advocacy group for business in the metropolitan region. "The city has the capacity to absorb growth, whereas the counties are looking to slow growth," Bracken said, reacting to the panelists' assessment. "The state is also working hard to help people from outside understand that the city is also a cultural center."

However, Baltimore must work to market itself as a player in the BRAC process if it wants to avoid being overshadowed by the metropolitan counties, according to a state economic official who took part in the panel discussion.

"Many of these people are coming from being a half-hour from New York," said J.M. Hayes, a retired general serving as director of military and federal affairs for the state Department of Business and Economic Development. "Baltimore has to sell itself so there is not a cultural shock."

A prime obstacle to Baltimore's playing a large role in BRAC is the school system, officials said.

"Its chief impediment is its schools," said Basu, a member of the city school board. "That's unfortunate, but that is the reality."

Encouraging more charter schools could help remove that stumbling block, he said.

"Charter schools are the key to redevelopment in the city," Basu said. "They don't suffer from the reputation of city schools, and they can tailor their curriculum to the incoming populace. This would add choice for those moving here."

The cost to implement the base reconfigurations here is estimated at about $25 billion, with about 75 percent of the cost going to construction projects at Fort Meade and APG. About $10 billion will be spent on research and development centers at the Aberdeen base, an old facility in need of modernization.

"The capital improvements planned for the next 10 to 15 years must be accomplished in the next five to seven years," said J. Thomas Sadowski, vice president of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.

In 1995, the last time the military undertook a major realignment, St. Mary's County invested $340 million in capital improvements to accommodate about 10,000 new jobs at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. The coming reconfiguration will bring at least four times that number to a broader area of Maryland.

"BRAC will be throughout Maryland from Andrews Air Force Base to Fort Meade and up the I-95 corridor to APG," Irani said. "The good news is that it's bringing jobs -- high-tech, highly skilled and high-paying jobs -- to Maryland."

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