The specter of a new round of Base Realignment and Closure in 2015 helped to secure tentative support from the region's banking and development leaders for a Navy plan to bring private office buildings to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
The Obama administration is rumored to be pursuing a 2015 BRAC, and contractors and politicians invoked that possibility at a meeting Monday in Lexington Park to rally local support for allowing the Navy's Enhanced Use Lease Program to proceed through Congress.
The Navy stated in February that its plan to lease 42 acres on seven Pax River sites under the EUL program is on hold, awaiting congressional consulting approval.
The morning meeting, held at the Bay District Volunteer Fire Department social hall, saw a vigorous, face-to-face discussion of the EUL program that until now has occurred only off the record and behind closed doors.
"There are rumors flying about a 2015 BRAC," warned Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary's), representing the office of Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th).
Bohanan and county leaders argued that the development and banking communities' resistance to the EUL process could leave Pax River open to program poaching by other bases, including California's China Lake, if Pax River leaders cannot find space to grow.
John Simmons, senior adviser with Akin Gump, a Washington, D.C., consulting group, told the gathering that the danger is more pronounced.
"Don't be focused on BRAC 2015; they can take your mission today," Simmons warned. "All of those missions are subject to being moved around."
Currently the Navy has 2,156 employees housed in relocatable buildings, according to George Hurlburt, treasurer for STEMCorp, a nonprofit organization seeking to submit a proposal for the EUL project. A further 674 employees are located in buildings outside the base fence.
Currently, Congress is not funding military construction requests for new office space. Navy leaders are looking to lease space to private investors to get new buildings built inside the fence.
"MILCON is going to be very tough haul," said J. Michael Hayes, director of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development's government and federal affairs office. Hayes noted that the Navy is receiving no new office construction anytime soon.
The EUL process, he said, is "a gentle workaround" the MILCON process, even if Navy officials can't admit this fact publicly.
Simmons said, "What Congress is trying to prevent is an end run around MILCON. … They don't want the government competing with the private sector."
"The Navy's been ready to move on this since the summer time frame," Bohanan said. "They view us as holding them up. … We were ready to let the Navy proceed on this, but there was a lot of pushback from the community, so we held back. … We have to work with the Navy. They are our partners in this. If they can't grow [inside the gate], we can't grow outside."
Bohanan asked the developers and financers at the meeting to consider the consequences of not giving the Navy a chance to expand its operations at Pax River.
"There are consequences for being full up at Pax," Bohanan said, later noting that the region lost a chance to snatch remnant pieces of the Joint Forces Command that the Pentagon disbanded in Norfolk, Va., last year.
However, the original EUL proposal, as presented by the Navy Facilities Engineering Command last year, is not a good deal for the local economy, according to Wayne Davis, president of W.M. Davis Inc., a Leonardtown-based development firm.
In a letter to the St. Mary's County commissioners last week, Davis argued that the EUL would have a "a chilling effect on the local development" and only benefit large, out-of-county developers, drawing contractor money away from local private property owners.
Local developer John Parlett was initially skeptical as well. He noted that his industry does not want to "kill the goose that lays the golden egg," but warned that any office buildings built on base are going to draw contractor tenants out of private buildings. "We've already got a disaster on Great Mills Road because of all the contractors moving north on [Route] 235," Parlett said. "I haven't seen anything or heard anything that makes sense outside the fence line."
Tom Dougherty of Cherry Cove Development said, "I just don't want Lexington Park to be forgotten in this whole process. I think it's important to have things outside Gate 2."
Local leaders conceded that the current EUL form is not ideal, but asked the development community to support it in order to get the process moving and possibly changed to allow local developers a better chance to participate.
"I think there will be enough demand inside the gate to fill these spaces," Bohanan said.
"The NAVFAC ground rules have, so far, been all or nothing," Hurlbert said. "I have to agree with our leaders in the community. If we accept the EUL as currently configured, it makes no sense for the community or the Navy."
However, both Hurlbert and STEMCorp chairman Keith Fairfax believe the Navy will reconfigure the EUL project if the right ears are bent. Fairfax noted that the EUL projects at the Solomons Rec Center and the Indian Head Naval Support Facility have not moved as fast as the Navy had hoped.
"They haven't been very successful at Indian Head; they haven't been very successful at Solomons," Fairfax said. "I don't know how successful they'd be here."