Base realignment: a generational challenge, and opportunity

March 11, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

Several years ago, when he was Maryland's secretary of economic development, David S. Iannucci buttonholed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on the subject of base closings. He knew that two Southern Maryland bases might be moved or downsized.

"He completely disregarded me," Mr. Iannucci recalls.

In a picture taken during the encounter, Mr. Iannucci realized, somewhat ruefully, that he and Mr. Rumsfeld were talking at the same time.

But maybe Mr. Rumsfeld was listening. When the BRAC (base realignment and closure) decisions were made, Maryland was a big winner, growing into an even more important center of the nation's military preparedness.

What BRAC promises for job growth in Maryland is "a generational opportunity - and a challenge," Mr. Iannucci says. There will be enough new jobs in the private and governmental sectors to further insulate Maryland from bumps in the national economy.

Now serving as economic development director for Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., Mr. Iannucci says good news on the job development front usually means 200 or 300 new jobs at most. BRAC is likely to mean thousands of jobs for several counties - about 30,000 jobs in all. The numbers differ depending on who's giving them, but no one doubts the significance of the growth.

Mr. Iannucci applauds Gov. Martin O'Malley's decision to put the management of BRAC into a sub-Cabinet headed by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown. He says planning for BRAC under the former state economic development director, Aris Melissaratos, was very good - but planners were never given the authority needed to decide difficult questions.

An enterprise of BRAC's magnitude, necessarily involving many counties and state agencies, needs a boss. It needs someone who is empowered to make hard decisions, to command certain actions and to keep everyone focused on the objective: meeting the needs of the newcomers and their families while preserving the state's quality of life.

BRAC communities must focus on land-use planning, water and sewer services, transportation and workforce development. It's not just a matter of letting contracts for work or starting a few training classes.

Potential tensions exist at virtually every level. New schools are needed, for example, and a good planner might want to anticipate the demand. But other counties may be unhappy if their school construction projects are derailed in favor of a BRAC county.

Transportation projects - mass transit and highway expansion - may also run into opposition. There will be those who feel better highways mean overcrowding. The same sort of concerns may arise around the master planning needed to guard against haphazard expansion. Growth is not always seen as a good thing.

With so much at stake, the counties must work together - not something that can be assumed. "It's a matter of managing the opportunity. We're not going to be served well by competition - sharp elbows," Mr. Iannucci said.

The BRAC phase-in will begin soon and last several years. Mr. Iannucci thinks Baltimore County will be one of the first places to see a significant BRAC-related surge in population.

"My boss' concern," he said, "is that because Baltimore County has the proper zoning in place and water resources in place, people will find what they want here. We may get more of the newcomers, because we're ready to go."

Baltimore may have a similar advantage, he said. It has more housing that can be made available for the BRAC influx. And it is a reasonably close commuting distance from two of the bases where growth will be greatest: Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground. The city's challenge will be to show the new families a school system that meets their demands.

Fortunately, Maryland has had a head start under Democratic and Republican administrations.

When he was with the state, Mr. Iannucci hired Michael Hayes, a former military officer with knowledge that might have been useful to defend against any base cutbacks - Mr. Iannucci's fears at the time he and Mr. Rumsfeld talked around each other.

Mr. Hayes, he says, has been an equally important asset as the state deals with BRAC's unexpected challenge and opportunity.

"We can screw this up," Mr. Iannucci says. "But I don't think we will. We're just so much stronger when we work in a collaborative way - as we have so far."

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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