The decision by a federal commission to close the Army base at Fort Monmouth, N.J., and relocate other military outfits to Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade could draw thousands of specialized government contractors into Maryland, fueling growth and bolstering the technology clusters already forming in pockets of the state.
Aberdeen Proving Ground, northeast of Baltimore, would gain 4,000 more government workers as a result of Fort Monmouth's closure, and perhaps twice that many privately employed engineers and software developers could follow Monmouth's specialized communications and engineering units to their new home. That growth, coupled with the expansion of Fort Meade, which is already home to the National Security Agency and is expected to gain 5,000 new workers, could add to the state's high-tech foundation.
"Now it seems all the stars are aligning," said Bill Badger, president and chief executive of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., which has taken a keen interest in the growth around the base. Fort Meade is in Anne Arundel County on the border with Howard County.
Assuming the Army's base-reorganization initiative goes as planned, the migration of tech workers to Maryland could follow quickly. Northrop Grumman Corp., for example, said it would relocate nearly 200 technology jobs to Aberdeen for work on contracts currently based at Fort Monmouth.
"They are excellent jobs -- highly trained, highly skilled, well-paid positions," said Randy Belote, a Northrop Grumman spokesman. And he said the contractor's relationship with its military employer is simple: "They move, we move."
The addition of thousands of military personnel, plus the lucrative contracting jobs that follow them, would absorb office space, generate tax revenue and drive the creation of new businesses around Aberdeen and Fort Meade.
"The entire community benefits from that kind of an influx," said Brig. Gen. J. Michael Hayes, Maryland's director of military and federal affairs.
To be sure, not everyone is pleased with the base closing commission's overall proposals, which would close Walter Reed Army Medical Center, add 18,000 people to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, and move more than 22,000 workers out of Northern Virginia inner suburbs such as Crystal City and Rosslyn. Politicians and industry officials from those areas say they fear there will be a "brain drain" as a result of the dispersal.
But Maryland's boosters are cheering because the jobs being moved to Aberdeen and Fort Meade are the type of positions that will attract a skilled workforce. Though the net growth in federal workers at Aberdeen is only 2,000 because some positions there are being eliminated, the units being moved in from New Jersey should bring in jobs with many of the major information technology companies -- firms such as Northrop, Lockheed Martin Corp., CACI International Inc., and the Mitre Corp.
According to state officials, the median salary at Aberdeen is $69,000, far above the statewide average, and private contractors are regularly paid far more than their government counterparts. Maryland officials estimate that 2.5 to 3 contractor jobs will follow each government or military position.
"The numbers that we have seen relative to the [Defense Department] jobs coming to the region are eventually going to be dwarfed by the number of contractors they bring with them," said Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development.
A study commissioned by the communities surrounding the New Jersey base found that almost 1,500 contracts worth $580 million were issued from Fort Monmouth in 2004. Officials from the base estimate that there are 2,500 employees of government contractors working on the base and thousands more in support roles throughout the area.
"Companies follow the work, and I think people follow the work as well," said Alan L. Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council, an industry organization. But, he added, the changes can become a nuisance for companies that have to get out of existing leases, find new office space, pay for relocation expenses and hire people to replace employees who are unwilling to move.
Vish Varma, vice president of corporate development for Falls Church-based AlphaInsight Corp., couldn't be happier about the proposed changes. His company shares in an information technology contact at Aberdeen that is worth about $80 million over five years. About 10 percent of the firm's 320 employees are already stationed there, doing network engineering and technology support work, and Varma is hoping that number will grow significantly as new units move in.
"We are entrenched at Aberdeen, and to anybody who comes to Aberdeen, the base commander might say, 'If you need IT services, here's a company that does a good job,' " Varma said.
For at least three years, Maryland has prepared for a new round of base closures, bracing for bad news but hoping for good. Groups all over the state formed alliances to make their case for why Fort Meade, already home to about 60,000 contractors and 20,000 employees working at the National Security Agency, should be a job-gainer.
Maryland's congressional delegation came through with $12.5 million to widen Route 175, a roadway that passes Fort Meade's gates. Anne Arundel County prevailed on the Army Corps of Engineers to permit commercial development near wetlands in the heart of Odenton, not far from Fort Meade's gates, allowing for more office space to house contractors. And the Department of Labor granted $1.24 million to help the government recruit workers in case there are slots left open by employees who don't want to move to Maryland.
"If only 80 percent of the people transfer, we're going to try to help fill that other 20 percent," said James D. Fielder Jr., secretary of the state's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. "We will help defray the recruitment and advertising costs and fill those vacant jobs."
Some contractors have already started to call real estate brokers about moving to follow the agencies they work with.
"The developers have been very eager to find opportunities near Aberdeen, Meade and Belvoir," said Kurt Stout, a broker with Grubb & Ellis who works with defense contractors looking for space and landlords.
Yesterday, state officials were glued to their television sets, watching the news of their efforts paying off. Hayes, the state's director of military and federal affairs, said he and his staff were at attention, watching the commission's decisions unfold on C-SPAN.
"Frankly, all one can do at this time is keep score," Hayes said.
Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.