Area business prepare for influx of workers at Fort Meade

By Marjorie Censer
Monday, October 4, 2010

Hundreds of business people, representing development firms, architecture businesses and a wide assortment of small companies, packed a Montgomery College theater in Silver Spring last week. It was rainy outside and traffic was bad, but attendees crowded the event to learn more about the Pentagon's effort to consolidate and realign military bases in the region.

BRAC, as the nationwide base realignment and closure effort is known, is entering the homestretch. Construction on new office buildings is wrapping up. Workers are on the move.

Few places in the Washington metropolitan area will see a bigger influx than Fort Meade, just south of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. By January, workers are scheduled to start arriving at a rate of about 1,000 per month, a pace that will continue into May.

As the military ramps up its realignment, local companies are beginning to circle, hoping that the moves will serve as a driver for new business opportunities, whether they be in contracting, real estate, law, insurance or even landscaping.

BRAC will bring about 5,500 new personnel to Fort Meade, according to Col. Daniel L. Thomas, the base's commander. That will help propel the head count there from 41,000 today to 48,000 a year from now, as those workers join an expansion already underway on the base.

Under BRAC, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is relocating 4,300 employees -- 2,500 government civilians, 1,500 direct contractors and 300 military employees -- as it gives up its headquarters in Arlington. The Defense Media Activity, a Pentagon agency that provides news and entertainment to U.S. forces, as well as defense adjudication entities are also moving to Fort Meade.

By next September, when the new agencies are operational at Fort Meade, "it's really phase one of BRAC [that] is complete," Thomas said. "The reality of it is [it] then will become the time when you firmly establish them in . . . the surrounding community in the coming years."

For the surrounding community at Fort Meade, the related issues include everything from housing to schools to where contractors will set up shop.

Fort Meade is already home to the National Security Agency and the newly established U.S. Cyber Command. The jobs headed there are primarily high-tech civilian positions, boding well for Maryland workers, said J. Michael Hayes, director of military and federal affairs in Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development. According to Thomas, about three-quarters of the installation's jobs are civilian -- a percentage he doesn't expect BRAC to change.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who is running for reelection, said last week that Maryland military facilities contribute $36 billion to the state's economy, representing about 7.5 percent of the total. Hayes said there has been no formal estimate on how much more economic activity BRAC will bring, but that the relocations are expected to significantly increase it.

The state is eager to welcome the newcomers. It announced last week its housing department will provide $2,500 in down payment and closing cost assistance to eligible federal civilian and military employees relocating under BRAC and buying a home through the state's mortgage program.

The consolidation, though, means a significant loss for Arlington County, which is watching about 17,000 jobs depart, according to Andrea Morris, BRAC project coordinator in the county's economic development office. The workers are vacating about 4.2 million square feet of privately owned, leased office space.

The bulk of the losses are in Crystal City, from which about 13,000 jobs are moving, leaving empty 3 million square feet of office space.

The migration should create business opportunities. The challenge, business leaders say, will be making sure they win one.

Andre P. Williams, chief information officer and chief technology officer at Herndon-based telecommunications firm Protocol, was one of those jamming the BRAC information session last week hosted by the media and conference company Bisnow. Williams said he was there to meet other business people who might help the company win work. He is hoping the company's status as a small business will help it get noticed in a crowded field.

Scott Harvey, president of acoustical consulting firm Phoenix Noise & Vibration in Frederick, also attended the event, looking to make contacts.

Harvey's company helps builders address noise concerns both inside and outside buildings -- for instance, by ensuring private conversations within a building's rooms cannot be heard from unsecured areas. The firm also knows how to make sure that external noise such as traffic is not disruptive inside a building.

But as businesses jostle for a piece of the pie, Fort Meade is facing the homestretch of BRAC. Some workers, primarily from DISA and the Defense Department's adjudication ranks, have already arrived, but personnel will begin to come in larger numbers at the base this fall, Thomas said.

By January, workers will be arriving at a rate of about 1,000 per month, a pace that will continue into May. By summer, the arrivals should slow to a trickle, he said.

New facilities at Fort Meade for the arriving organizations are under construction and will be complete before the end of the year, Thomas said. The base continues to convene working groups focused on transportation issues like road improvement as well as mitigation options like carpooling, telework and internal buses.

Thomas said the base has already made progress on promoting telework and has expanded its internal bus service. Now, it is considering a gate for carpools, he added.

The September 2011 deadline marks only the date when the new agencies have to be functioning at Fort Meade. Plenty of work will continue well beyond then, Thomas said.

"It's definitely not a deadline for the infrastructure needs," he said. Those needs "change constantly."

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