Story by George Newman and Photography by Devon Sinclaire
You can measure the military's economic impact on Southern Maryland by the numbers, and mighty impressive numbers they are: 35,000 employees and contractors at three bases and a Coast Guard station, an annual payroll near $1 billion, a total boost of several billion dollars, including the indirect benefits. But numbers can be numbing, especially when they get into the billions. To understand what the armed forces mean to the prosperity and psyche of the region, you need to look at the commercial development along Route 235 in St. Mary's County near Patuxent River Naval Air Station (known to all as Pax River). Look at the plans for business and technology parks in Charles County adjoining the Indian Head Navy Station, and in southern Calvert County near Pax River. Most important, listen to Southern Marylanders, on the bases and off, natives and recent arrivals, as they describe what the military's presence means to them.
To understand that, we first need to look at some more numbers: With a workforce of 17,000 civilians, 2,800 military and 9,500 "badged contractors"-non-Defense Department employees working on the base-Pax River is the largest employer in Southern Maryland and one of the largest in the state. In St. Mary's County 75 percent of the population benefits directly or indirectly from the base, says Hans Welch, manager of the county's Business Development Division. Pax River dwarfs the region's second largest military installation, the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Charles County. Yet Indian Head, with 2,400 civilian employees, 560 military personnel and nearly 600 badged contractors, stands as the largest employer in its county. Calvert County has just one small military installation, the Chesapeake Bay Detachment of the Naval Research Laboratory, whose mission includes testing radar on the bay. However, more than a thousand Calvert residents work at Pax River and nearly a hundred at Indian Head. (Employment, contracting and related economic impact at Pax River and Indian Head were the subjects of a detailed study by the Jacob France Institute of the University of Baltimore's business school in 2002. An updated version of that study is scheduled for release late this year. Numbers in this article are based on Navy figures submitted for the update, and on the original study as well as information from the Tri-County Council and the counties' economic development departments.)
The military, especially the Navy, has been around Southern Maryland for a long time. Indian Head was established in 1890 as the Naval Proving Ground and retains its mission of weapons testing. Pax River, principal research center for Navy aviation and home of the service's Test Pilots School, opened in 1943, part of America's mobilization for World War II. Its recent growth-and the explosion of big-box stores and chain restaurants along Route 235-dates from the military's massive base consolidation that began in the mid-1990s, shifting thousands of jobs from Virginia and Pennsylvania to Southern Maryland. Indian Head also gained several hundred jobs in the move, known as BRAC, for Base Realignment and Closure. By the start of the 21st Century, Pax River had some 10,000 employees, not including contractors, and Indian Head had more than 2,800. Today, Pax River's employment has nearly doubled, while Indian Head's has remained stable. A relatively small number of jobs, mostly military, are at the Coast Guard Station at St. Inigoes, which is adjacent to Pax River, and at the Chesapeake Bay Detachment in Chesapeake Beach. One more military employer is the Navy's recreation area in Solomons, a campground and lodge open to active duty and retired military as well as Department of Defense civilians.
Enough numbers. Let's listen to some voices.
— Cynthia Hurla is a 23-year Navy employee, a mechanical engineer who worked in northern Virginia until the BRAC took her to Pax River in 1997. At first she wasn't sure what to make of her new environment. "Now I call it a slice of heaven," she says. "What we have here is low stress and a high quality of life. You might find that in other places but not with the economic opportunities we have here." Hurla's enthusiasm for the area is such that she helps in recruiting new workers for Pax River.
— Daniel Grant came to Pax River just five years ago after growing up in Rochester, N.Y., and obtaining an engineering degree from Penn State University. He recalls, with some understatement, that Southern Maryland was "somewhat different than what I was used to … but I focused on the opportunities that were here." Those opportunities included volunteering in the community. Today, Grant is president of the Young Professionals Initiative of St. Mary's County, which he helped establish, and active in many regional organizations, including the Naval Air Warfare Center's Educational Partnership, which encourages science and technology education in regional schools, including the College of Southern Maryland and the public school systems in all three Southern Maryland counties.
— David MacRae, executive vice president for business intelligence & operations of Smartronix, Inc., is a native of St. Mary's County who moved back to join the company, which makes combat-worthy communications equipment used by all branches of the military and provides services related to information technology. It was the prime contractor in setting up recovery.gov, the website established by Vice President Biden's office to allow the public to track the use of federal stimulus funds. This summer, Smartronix won a contract to modernize the U.S. Treasury Department's web sites. Although Smartronix has 11 other sites across the country-all in proximity to military bases-and most of its 600 employees are outside Southern Maryland, it maintains its headquarters here, where it recently moved into a new building in Hollywood, Maryland, a few miles away from Pax River. "The culture of this company really is the culture of St. Mary's County-a family-oriented culture that we've maintained," MacRae says. Company President Arshed Javaid, one of three founders of Smartronix, adds, "The majority of our corporate officers are from here [and] we are committed to St. Mary's County for a long time."
As important as the military is to Southern Maryland's economy today, that importance is likely to increase in the future. Naval District Washington, which oversees both Pax River and Indian Head, hopes to institute a program called "Enhanced Use Leasing." That bureaucratic name describes an initiative to lease under-used base land for private-sector research and development. The result would be more employment and greater economic impact. Also, both Calvert and Charles counties have plans for business and technology parks that would benefit from proximity to Pax River and Indian Head. In a presentation to the state in 2007, Gary Hodge, who was head of the Tri-County Council during the first BRAC transfers (and is now a Charles County commissioner), noted that the region's approach had been recognized as "the Southern Maryland model," with the economic benefit far outweighing the state's investment in infrastructure.
Ultimately, however, it's not just about the money. Hodge also cited "close attention to the human factor." Hans Welch, the economic development official in St. Mary's County, gets the last word: "We've got the cream of the crop of the U.S. military here, with people like those in the Test Pilots School. Most of the base commanders, when they retire, they stay here in Southern Maryland. That tells you something."
Pax River hosts groups. Indian Head has no visitor program but will entertain requests for visits on an individual basis. Contact public affairs offices at Pax River 301-757-6748, Indian Head 540-653-1457.
More information: Pax River, http://www.navair.navy.mil; Indian Head, http://www.navsea.navy.mil/nswc/indianhead/; Chesapeake Bay Detachment, http://www.nrl.navy.mil/field-sites/chesapeake-bay-det./; St. Inigoes Coast Guard Station, http://www.uscg.mil/d5/stastinigoes/; Solomons Navy Recreation Center, www.cnic.navy.mil/Solomons/