Lessons learned

February 18, 2007

A winter morning view of the Patuxent River from the Thomas Johnson Bridge offers a palette of gray and indigo, water tumbling under overcast skies. During rush hour, commuters have ample time to take in the bucolic scene as they creep across the narrow, two-lane bridge to St. Mary's County and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. At least 2,500 Calvert County residents commute daily to the base, a fraction of the 20,000 defense industry jobs pumping up Southern Maryland. They're the economic payoff of the base realignment and closure (BRAC) decision of 1993 that benefited Maryland. The bridge backup is one of its annoying costs.

There are others, but they don't all have to be tradeoffs for a high-tech, well-paid, military-related work force. For the most part, St. Mary's County capitalized on the BRAC opportunity of the mid-1990s. Its major gains - improved roads and upgraded schools - resulted from strategic regional planning, a set of priority projects, a consensus to stick with them and a joint push for state funding. Those are the primary lessons of the Southern Maryland experience that local governments in the Baltimore region should apply as they prepare for the arrival of thousands of military jobs from Virginia and New Jersey.

Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, the infrastructure to support the expansion of Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade won't be, either. Improvements will take even longer if Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and the city spar over what needs to be done first. Their choices are greater than those that confronted officials in Southern Maryland, where the Patuxent naval station sits on a peninsula accessible by one main road.

Central Maryland has the advantage of commuter rail and public transportation access. And it's likely that many relocated federal workers will commute for the first year or two - as was the case in Southern Maryland - rather than move immediately. That's a strong reason to make top priorities of improvements to MARC lines and Interstate 95, the major commuter routes that pass through several counties.

St. Mary's was the obvious choice this year for the Maryland Economic Development Association's spring conference. When state and local officials arrive, they should take a drive along a widened Route 235 for a lesson in what not to do as they plan for BRAC.

On either side of the busy four-lane road are strip malls of brand-name stores, followed by clusters of boxy office buildings for defense contractors and related businesses. The commercial development runs right up to the base gates. And while it offers the staples of suburban life - Starbucks, Panera Bread and a Target, for example - the shopping centers are uninspired and aesthetically disappointing.

Anne Arundel and Harford counties already suffer from this wretched form of suburbanitis; they shouldn't exacerbate the problem. They need to revitalize dormant areas with an eye toward service and aesthetics, offering a quality of life that will root new federal workers here. The expansion of Pax River, as the naval station is informally called, sped up the transformation of Southern Maryland from a rural enclave to an exurb of Washington. It has brought 13,000 civil servants to the region, a third of what's expected in Central Maryland. Overall, the Pax River defense work has generated $2.5 billion for the state's economy.

John Savich, St. Mary's acting administrator and economic development director, has some basic advice for his colleagues: Consider the military to be a major employer, and treat it as such. Take a long view of the relationship. Not everything can get done now, or in the next two years. That's a point well taken: Nearly a decade after the work force at Pax River started growing and changing, the military's bustling business is still such a draw that the state is planning to expand the Thomas Johnson Bridge.

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