Even before noon, the parking lot is packed and the line nearly snakes out the door at Café Joe near Fort Meade.
It’s a typical Thursday, and the regular customers are on hand — a white-collar crowd dressed casually in khakis and polo shirts, some embroidered with company logos, the kind of workers who look like they sit behind computers rather than meet with clients.
They walk in past windows where signs advertise cybersecurity and technology jobs at AvidTec and Scitor. On the formica tables inside, place mats from Six3 Systems include quick response codes that job-seekers can scan for information on how to submit their résumés.
Most people in the lunch crowd probably already have the necessary security clearances. The unpretentious café, where the day’s specials include a meatball sub and a chicken bacon melt, is one of the rare dining options within minutes of the sprawling National Business Park, where defense giants such as Boeing and General Dynamics have established hubs for their cybersecurity businesses.
Café Joe is thriving because of the boom in cybersecurity and intelligence work — fields that are widely expected to grow even as other defense spending declines. When the restaurant was getting off the ground a decade ago, just 10 office buildings were in the park. Now the square footage of the 27-building complex is about half that of the Pentagon — and it’s 98 percent full. Its builder, Corporate Office Properties Trust, is constructing another complex nearby, also aimed at the government and its contractors.
As Fort Meade rapidly morphs from a more traditional Army base into the latest high-tech hub, the formerly modest, blue-collar area surrounding it is turning into a new cyber city. An area once served by a strip of liquor stores and lounges is giving way to the more upscale apartments, retail and dining favored by highly educated — and well-paid — cyber and intelligence workers.
Construction sites seem to be everywhere: new offices, new apartments and townhouses, major road improvements. Even the roads around Fort Meade indicate the shift. Rather than being “adopted” for clean-up by Kiwanis or a Boy Scout troop, the roads are being maintained by Praxis Engineering and other technology contractors.
Defense contractors are bracing for federal budget cuts, but that is not evident from the money moving into this part of Anne Arundel County. Even the government shutdown that began Oct. 1 isn’t dampening the long-term outlook for cybersecurity and intelligence work.
Fort Meade, which already was home to the National Security Agency, became the headquarters of the newly formed U.S. Cyber Command in 2010. By 2011, the Defense Information Systems Agency, which handles the Pentagon’s IT and communications needs, had moved onto the base.
In 2005, the base had just over 33,500 employees. Today, it has about 57,000, more than double the number of workers at the Pentagon.
The influx spurred growth in the surrounding area. From 1990 to 2010, Anne Arundel’s population grew by about 110,000 — nearly 26 percent. The 2000 Census reported that the county’s median household income was just shy of $62,000, in 1999 dollars. By 2011, that figure reached more than $84,000 – outpacing inflation, even as salaries across the country have fallen behind.
There are other signs of development in the county, including the Maryland Live! Casino, which opened last year just up the road from Fort Meade. But the rise of cyber work is having the most obvious impact.
For decades, hundreds of blue-collar workers reported to Nevamar, a laminate manufacturing plant near the southern end of Fort Meade. Today, that real estate is the site of high-end apartments built by the Bozzuto Group, complete with granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances in the kitchens and a pool and gym within the complex.
George Carras’s company StonebridgeCarras, which bought the land eight years ago, still has dozens of undeveloped acres and is considering retail and restaurants. “Most of what’s going to get built is going to be higher-grade, nicer product,” Carras said. Even as recently as five years ago, he said, this “was a lot harder to envision.”
Just down the street from the Bozzuto apartments is one of the early buildings of Odenton Town Center, a planned 1,600-acre complex with retail, office space and upscale apartments centered around the MARC station in Odenton.
The Dolben Co. opened its apartments there last year, with elevators, underground parking and retail below. A large two-bedroom unit goes for as much as $2,100 a month, and Bob Lowther, who manages the project, said virtually all apartments are rented. “The cyber industry . . . it’s just created more and more jobs,” he said.
There’s still evidence of what Odenton used to look like. A few minutes away, afire station advertises an upcoming crab feast. Near the Bozzuto complex, some older homes sit vacant, others already torn down as developers prepare for new shops and restaurants.
But those remnants are becoming rarer.
Jay Winer’s family moved to Anne Arundel in the 1940s and built the Nevamar facility. He has become an advocate for growth in the county, and says today’s developments are long overdue.
“This has been, and still is, so starved for a sense of place,” Winer said of the area. He hopes the new stores and restaurants will not only cater to Fort Meade employees, but offer new options for county residents not working in the cyber industry.
At Café Joe, Lester Yocum was among those eating lunch one September day. Yocum has lived in the area for 30 years, working for the military, as a federal employee and now as a contractor. The growth has been a mixed blessing for him — more employment and rising home values, but significantly worsened traffic.
But no downside changes the fact that this area is better off than much of the rest of the country. If you’ve got the skills, he says, you can get a job. “This is a secure world in which to live,” he said.
Lifelong Anne Arundel resident and county council member Jamie Benoit has similarly mixed feelings. He represents much of the area around Fort Meade, where homes range from modest townhouses to multimillion-dollar waterfront properties.
Benoit is personally involved with the buildup in contractor spending. In 2008, he bought the Crystal City-based IT contractor Federal Data Systems and commutes daily. He doesn’t want this part of Anne Arundel to turn into another Crystal City or Tysons Corner, he said, where people simply come for work without any attachment to the community.
In particular, Benoit said he wants to ensure that poorer residents, who typically face higher unemployment rates, see benefits from the changes around Fort Meade.
“There’s a lot of community around the Fort who one might argue are getting left behind in a lot of this Fort Meade growth,” he said. “The challenge is providing those communities the same type of opportunities to benefit from what’s going on.”