- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

Plan could boost jobs in the area

Developers, contractors and construction workers are girding for one of the biggest residential projects in the Washington-Baltimore area a project spearheaded by the U.S. Army.

The U.S. Army will solicit bids as soon as today to build or renovate 3,170 housing units at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County. The construction at the fort near Annapolis Junction is expected to cost $200 million to $250 million.

More than 150 representatives of several development and contracting companies from around the country are expected to attend a forum on the project Friday.

"It's definitely a significant contract that will bring thousands of construction jobs to the area," said J.P. Blase Cooke, president of Harkins Builders. The Silver Spring company plans to bid for the job.

Not only is it a plum contract for the construction industry; it's expected to attract development to an area that Anne Arundel County officials have targeted for growth.

"It will upgrade the entire community," said Neil Shpritz, executive director of the BWI Business Partnership, a nonprofit group promoting economic growth and transportation in the region.

"There's a lot of interest in the [Route] 175 corridor," an aging commercial strip that dates back to World War II and runs through the base, he said. The area needs more services and higher-quality retail, which may arrive as an indirect result of development on the base, said business and real estate officials.

The housing project is not the only development on the base, which has adopted an economic strategy to guard against being caught in future military base closings, said George Barbee, civilian project manager of the Fort Meade project.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently set up offices there, and the army is hunting for more tenants. Base officials want to set up a hotel with private help. They also want to privatize the utilities and are negotiating with Anne Arundel Community College to set up a satellite campus on the base, Mr. Barbee said.

The county has also stepped up to back the Army's moves.

"Fort Meade has played an important role in our economy," said Bill Badger, president of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp.

As for the housing project, the Army will lease a 910-acre area to a developer for 50 years, and expects to earn about $2 billion over the term of the lease. Another 250 acres would be available for future construction, Mr. Barbee said.

The developer, which is expected to be chosen by year-end, would construct and rent the housing back to the army. Fort Meade has 112 units in an historic district dating back to the 1930s that need to be preserved, as well as 2,488 more that were built in during the 1960s that the army wants to replace, Mr. Barbee said.

Besides housing, the program could include a community center, a school and day care center, parks, trails, utilities and possibly a retail component.

"Whatever it takes to make it a contemporary community, we will put into the plan," Mr. Barbee said.

The Fort Meade contract is the last of four pilot projects to use public-private partnerships to tackle the inadequate housing that has plagued Army families for years.

Part of the attraction of the contract is that developers expect the army will want to do more such projects at other bases.

"The opportunity is huge," said Frank Guillott, an official with the real estate firm CB Richard Ellis who is tracking the project and may assemble a team to make a bid.

About 100 companies most from other parts of the country have looked at the Fort Meade project, said Harkins' Mr. Cooke, who expects 15 to 20 bids to be submitted in the end.

Since inadequate housing and health care are the main reasons many soldiers leave the army, Congress in 1996 approved a Pentagon plan to hire private developers for the job. Private-sector companies would do the job faster and cheaper, Army officials decided.

The Army tried out the idea first on Fort Carson in Colorado Springs last fall, and is expected to announce contracts soon on Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Lewis in Washington state. In this way, the Army expects to add $750 million worth of new housing over 10 years.

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