If you build it, they will come.
That’s what builders and contractors were told at a forum on base realignment and closure (BRAC), the ongoing military base restructuring that will bring 28,000 jobs to the region by mid-September to be based at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) in Harford County.
But many who attended the event Friday at Martin’s West said they were frustrated because their attempts to gain a foothold in the BRAC housing and retail market had been thwarted by the bureaucracy of the military and economic constraints of the recession. “There are endless possibilities,” said Bernie D’Aleo, a project manager for Modu Tech Builders of Baltimore. “The real issue for us contractors is how do we get into that ‘club’ and get to these housing projects.”
Retired Marine Corps Brigadier Gen. Mike Hayes detailed the BRAC expansion and the eventual addition of up to 60,000 new jobs to Maryland. Hayes is the chief liaison between the military and local businesses and elected officials for the BRAC effort.
D’Aleo’s company is part of Heil Buildings, which focuses on large commercial buildings, apartment complexes, senior housing and rehabbing. He said Heil hopes to move into building military housing as part of BRAC, but has yet to be able to navigate the layers of acronyms and bureaucracy needed to become eligible to bid for projects.
In the meantime, the need for housing is becoming critical, as more than 7,000 new jobs are opening up at APG beginning this July, many as a result of the closing of Fort Monmouth, an Army base in New Jersey. In addition, 32 defense contractors have relocated to the APG community since early 2009, also adding to the demand for local housing and services.
“The money is there and the place is there,” D’Aleo said. “And that’s why I’m here — I’m trying to figure out which road to take to get to the meeting. The government has a way of complicating things.”
Friday’s forum was sponsored by the Homebuilders Association of Maryland and attracted dozens of realtors and contractors to discuss ways to better market housing options in the metropolitan area.
Experts from Harford, Howard, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City said the BRAC expansion, which impacts APG, the National Security Agency and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, translates into a potential jackpot.
“We should become the center of the cyber world if we do things right,” said James Richardson, director of the Harford County Office of Economic Development. “By 2015, it is projected that we will have a total of 142,000 jobs and a population of 266,000. We know the jobs are coming and the land is there.”
Richardson said home sales have increased in Harford County by 61 percent from last March. At present, there are 1,900 homes listed for sale in the county and the average time on the market for a sale is 30 days. Two new housing developments, totaling 1,000 new units are underway, he added.
In Cecil County, Vernon Thompson said officials are poised to become the largest growth area in the state in the next decade.
“We are a rural county beginning to blossom,” said Thompson, director of the Cecil County Office of Economic Development. “Our dilemma is keeping up with transportation and infrastructure.”
Anna Custer, director of Live Baltimore, the nonprofit that promotes life in the city, said some BRAC employees are seeking to live in Baltimore — because of the reverse commute that is expected to allow them to get them to work at APG within 30 minutes traveling on Interstate 95.
“The city of Baltimore could absorb all of BRAC and not build one new home,” Custer said, referring to the city’s vacant housing stock, ripe for renovation or demolition, homes for sale and availability of newly constructed high-rise condos downtown. “The average price for a house in Baltimore is $159,000.”
Planning and new construction at APG has been brisk since BRAC was announced in 2005. So far, a $477 million contract has produced nine new buildings on the base, totaling 1.5 million square feet of space.
The project is nearly three months ahead of schedule, and the “mini Pentagon” buildings expected to begin opening up this summer, said Karen L. Holt, BRAC manager for the Chesapeake Science & Security Corridor, the regional clearinghouse for the military realignment implementation.
Holt said about 1,800 employees have already started to work, and many are living in temporary housing in Harford County.
“The median age of the worker is going to be 47 and the median salary is $87,000 per year,” Holt said. “And 40 percent of the new jobs are engineering and science.”
That said, Holt urged the realtors and developers to zero in on future housing projects to target the steady stream of professionals moving to north and central Maryland.
That has not been an easy task, though, said Brenda Desjardins, a housing consultant from Annapolis.
“There is no magic answer,” Desjardins told the group. “I have been working with BRAC people for four years and it’s an ongoing effort to advertise in New Jersey and there is a huge gossip mill in Fort Monmouth. They hate the pizza we have here. They hate that we don’t have any bakeries…”