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Household incomes in St. Mary’s County can range from less than $30,000 a year to well north of $100,000.

The disparity was highlighted in a June 6 article in The Enterprise headlined “Defense jobs out of reach for many in St. Mary’s.” That Capital News Service report was the jumping-off point last week for a discussion among eight community leaders and students from the Florida Institute of Technology’s Strategic Management course in Lexington Park.

“The article led us to look more closely at whether or not the jobs in and around our area are accessible, and whether everyone is getting a fair share of the opportunities that are out there,” Bob Schaller, the course instructor, said.

Job readiness and access to the area’s largest employer — Patuxent River Naval Air Station — is key to the gap, based on 2011 data concluding that jobs related to the Navy base on average make 2˝ times as much as jobs not directly related to the base.

“Here, it’s not about ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ but ‘haves’ and ‘have-lesses,’” Schaller said. “We’re blessed with great defense jobs here, but they’re very hard to get. Federal wages here represent 35 percent of all wages in the county, so the base has a huge impact. Between federal and private business services, such as our contractors, these two groups combined represent 45 percent of the jobs and 67 percent of the income in the county. Two out of every three dollars is earned directly in association with this base. But ... are the opportunities to earn those dollars there for everyone?”

“What’s happened here at Pax River ... is that we’re ... developing the trends of the future while maintaining and perpetuating the technology of today,” said Capt. Ted Mills , commanding officer of the base. “But if we lose the intellectual capabilities and prevent new minds from coming on board, everything will fall apart. The biggest problem that we face, then, is not a lack of people with the knowledge and capabilities in the next generation, but the lack of opportunities and accessibility to the base for them.”

Issues surrounding St. Mary’s reliance on the base and its role as the economic lifeblood of the area were also addressed.

“I really feel for St. Mary’s County this is a time when our need to diversify has never been greater,” said Robin Finnacom, president and CEO of the Community Development Corp. “I am not worried about Pax being closed ... but I am worried about us becoming dependent on one type of industry, because if that starts to cut, what do we do then?”

Gary Kessler, executive director for NAWCAD, said Pax River officials are working on just that — broadening the spectrum of technologies produced.

“One of the things we’ve really been working on is strengthening our relationships outside the gate with some of our technology development activities so we can use local businesses rather than soliciting out-of-area services,” Kessler said. “As we look to the future, we hope to also take advantage of a lot of the home-grown talent here in the region to further our capabilities — we don’t want to be a one-trick pony.”

“That’s the thing, too, is that if we have the people here ready and willing to join the workforce behind the fence line but those jobs aren’t available, they’re going to leave to seek out better opportunities,” Schaller said. “They want those big salaries, too, so accessibility and availability need to be addressed among the federal and private employers on the base.”

“With Pax growth, the salaries have gone up — they’re enviable — but so has the cost of living,” Finnacom interjected. “So even if you’re paying a good living wage for a blue-collar job, that person can’t necessarily live where they work due to the increasing costs to sustain and maintain a certain way of life.

“It’s not that everybody has to work at Pax,” she said. “But we also need people in retail positions, we need school teachers, we need firemen ... we need all of that in a community that’s healthy and thriving, but if the rest of the community can’t afford to live here on their salary, then we’ve got a problem. And we do have that problem — a disparity in terms of the cost of living for those who don’t have, say, an engineering-level salary.”

But not everyone present took the wage disparity so seriously.

“As far as the income gap, I don’t think our situation is that unique,” said student Kevin Shwertfeger. “I mean, if this were a factory town, there’d be people who had jobs at the factory and people who didn’t. It’s the same here, just with a military base.”

“Overall, few communities rely on a job source the way St. Mary’s County relies on NAS Pax River,” Schaller said, “and we see that reliance continuing. But the fact that we do have a great employer in the base here that has a pulling-up effect means that the ‘have-lesses’ here have not as much less as they do elsewhere in the country.”