The nearly $1 billion expansion coming to Aberdeen Proving Ground could help revitalize the U.S. 40 corridor, a long-neglected strip of highway that runs through Harford and Cecil counties.
Developers are asking officials for zoning flexibility as they strive to meet the demands for housing and offices that will accompany the nationwide military base realignment, known as BRAC.
"Most of what we have to develop has something on the site to demolish or an environmental issue or water problems," said Clark Turner, a prominent developer, in a speech at a BRAC event last week. "We need flexibility in zoning [as an incentive]. We need to work together because this is Smart Growth in the greatest sense of the word."
BRAC will add more than 8,000 military and civilian jobs at Aberdeen Proving Ground and thousands more contractor jobs in the area. While the base is constructing several new buildings and renovating others, many more contractors will need office space nearby.
Most of the new employees, whose average annual income will be $86,000, are expected to relocate in Harford and Cecil counties. Each will pay as much as $12,000 annually in income and property taxes - revenue that could add $250 million a year to the coffers of the two counties, Turner said.
"Now we have an historic opportunity to turn Route 40 around and transform it into a new tax base with high-tech office buildings filled with high-paying jobs," Turner said. "Harford and Cecil can be more than warehouse economies."
James C. Richardson, Harford's director of economic development, supports Turner's commitment to improving the U.S. 40 corridor.
"He has a lot of good vision that is consistent with ideas that we embrace in economic development," Richardson said. "We are moving forward with rebuilding along Route 40. It is where our infrastructure is."
Officials from Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City, who were gathered at the BRAC event Wednesday, endorsed creation of the Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor along U.S. 40.
"It will offer exciting mixed-use opportunities for retail and commercial," said Chris Moyer, senior development officer with Baltimore Development Corp.
The decline of U.S. 40 began with the 1963 opening of Interstate 95, a parallel superhighway that allowed traffic headed south to Washington or north to New York to proceed unimpeded. Many businesses abandoned U.S. 40, property values declined, and the highway became a long stretch of strip malls, run-down motels and aging factories.
The state, county and developers are working together to revive the road.
Harford County will build a $14 million "southern resource annex" that will house the Sheriff's Office's southern precinct and possibly Health Department offices on a 7-acre former truck stop site. The state is adding landscaping and decorative stone walls to the medians and encouraging businesses to return.
"Improvements in the streetscape are a great step in enhancing the quality of life along the corridor," Richardson said.
Turner saw the potential for the re-emergence of U.S. 40 years before BRAC was announced in 2005. He has already built Water's Edge, an office and residential complex along the Bush River in Belcamp.
The audience cheered as he showed a video of the demolition of the abandoned Bata shoe factory that made way for the development of townhouses with river views. The homes sold for more than $500,000 and the office buildings are nearly all leased, he said.
The demand for homes and offices will only increase as BRAC draws more people to the area, Turner said. About 12 million square feet of office space, in various stages of planning and construction along U.S. 40 from eastern Baltimore County through Harford and Cecil, will offer businesses location options near the base. Along with employment opportunities will come a need for housing.
"We have to marry those jobs with houses," Turner said. "We have to take quick steps now to make sure the infrastructure is in place."
Moratoriums, imposed because of crowded schools, have stymied developers' efforts to build in and around existing towns. Harford County will soon embark on school construction projects worth $140 million, including a new high school and two new elementaries to ease the enrollment crunch.
"The BRAC train has left the station," Turner said. "It will arrive by 2011. We have to get infrastructure in place now."