New mission at Fort Meade

Our view: With U.S. Cyber Command headed to Anne Arundel county, opportunities for economic growth in the region — and the challenge of accommodating thousands of new defense-related jobs — are more than virtual

May 24, 2010

Nearly lost in the shuffle of events last week was the semi-official word that Fort George G. Meade will be headquarters to the U.S. Cyber Command, the new unit that will lead the military's effort to defend against and mount computer attacks. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates alluded to the decision Friday during ceremonies in which the director of the National Security Agency, U.S. Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, was awarded his fourth star.

The choice will be no great shock, as the NSA is already a key player in the nation's cyber defense efforts. But the economic impact for the region is likely to be sizeable. The command is expected to oversee 21,000 employees nationwide, and Gov. Martin O'Malley acknowledged last week that translates into "thousands of jobs" for Anne Arundel County and the Baltimore-Washington area, though perhaps not for some years.

Defense technology jobs are a growth industry for the state. Federal Base Realignment and Closure decisions are already in the process of bringing thousands of military and civilian jobs to Maryland, most to either Aberdeen Proving Ground or Fort Meade. The Cyber Command impact could be just as great as BRAC — at least in the long term.

The BRAC-related jobs are not temporary, stimulus-related positions. These are permanent assignments being relocated from places like Houston; Fort Monmouth, N.J.; and Fort Lee, Va. While some of the jobs have already come to the area, far more are expected to make the move this fall and next year.

Maryland has done much to prepare for this transition, and the timing could prove more fortuitous than anyone could have predicted. The jobs will help the state recover from the economic recession, and the soft housing market also means more (and often more affordable) homes are available for those relocating here.

Certainly, it's already been a help to the construction industry. Local companies have been awarded the majority of nearly $1 billion in contracts given out so far to build new offices and other facilities on Maryland military bases.

Still, add the new cyber security jobs to BRAC-related growth in Harford and Anne Arundel counties, and the state's infrastructure is likely to be tested, from schools to sewer lines. Maryland has either made or is planning tens of millions of dollars in upgrades to roads and intersections near the facilities, but probably not enough to accommodate the thousands of additional commuters.

That problem may be felt most acutely around Fort Meade, where traffic is already commuter-heavy. Yet the state lacks the resources to do much about it, as the recession has greatly reduced transportation-related tax revenue.

That will need to change soon. Maryland needs to address billions of dollars in unmet transportation needs or risk future gridlock. The stakes are higher than the 300 or so jobs related to the Northrop Grumman headquarters that are headed to Virginia. Details for the Cyber Command are so far fuzzy (as matters involving NSA and national security often are), but the agency and the private sector investment it is bound to generate are too valuable to ignore.

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