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Patuxent River Naval Air Station, ever since it opened 70 years ago, has been the prime economic engine of St. Mary’s County. Today, it provides for approximately 22,400 jobs, and around 80 percent of the local economy through direct jobs and support services.

But budget cuts to the Department of Defense have highlighted the downside of such heavy reliance on one industry, and St. Mary’s leaders are looking to diversify.

The county government is applying for a $25,000 federal grant to complete a comprehensive economic development strategy. The county government would match an additional $25,000 if it is approved.

The plan would make an inventory of the county’s business and community assets “to establish a path to diversify the regional economy,” wrote Steve Anderson, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Economic and Community Development.

The strategy can’t come soon enough, said Glen Ives, president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, which advocates for the high-tech defense industry in the region.

Such an initiative for the Southern Maryland region was already being developed by community groups, and called Southern Maryland 2020. But “this grant application is going to spearhead this project, instead of just talking about it forever — not a bad thing to do,” said Jack Russell (D), president of the St. Mary’s County commissioners.

The initial work will make an inventory of business and community assets, then a plan to develop different economic opportunities in St. Mary’s will be drafted, Anderson said.

Although St. Mary’s County government is picking up the project, other members of the community are welcome to assist, Russell said Wednesday. “I don’t see this as a project where anybody’s butting heads. This is a defining moment here to try to look to the future of St. Mary’s County,” he said. “It’s going to be a good exercise for the county to take part in. I think this will get us started on the right path.”

“I’m all for it. I think it’s a great idea,” Ives said Thursday. “We’ve been so reliant on the federal government, we haven’t had to worry about any economic development strategy. We can’t do this soon enough.”

“We don’t have an economic development strategy,” said Commissioner Todd Morgan (R), a program manager with a defense contractor. The plan will help prepare the local economy for a future BRAC — base realignment and closure, he said.

“The Navy’s been our bread and butter and that’s it,” said Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R). Rather than a more expensive regional plan, this will cost $50,000, he said. “This looks like a better way to approach it.”

The next largest economic driver in St. Mary’s after the defense industry is tourism. “There’s gotta be more than that,” Jarboe said.

Ives said the county will have to wait for the grant application to be approved, and money wouldn’t be available for the study until after July 1. “I would think there would be a real sense of urgency. Why wouldn’t we invest our current resources?” he said.

He noted that St. Mary’s County government has $7.5 million reserved for a BRAC response fund, which hasn’t been applied to anything specific. The study is “only $50,000. We can’t find $50,000?” he said. “Timeliness is probably more paramount than anything else. Otherwise, we’re going to be playing catch-up. The need is now, in fact, the need was yesterday.”

Anderson agreed. “Why wasn’t this done three years ago, or 10 years ago?” he said. Anderson was hired as the county’s economic and community development director last October.

But the county can’t move head on diversifying its economy without knowing what assets it has, he said, which this study will collect.

No matter what other economic routes lie ahead, Anderson said, “there’s no way we’ll ever supplant that 80 percent” that Pax River supplies by itself.

jbabcock@somdnews.com