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Having Maryland named as one of six sites in the country designated to test unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial use could be a good starting point to diversify St. Mary’s County’s economy, some elected officials and community leaders believe.
The trick is getting everyone on board, and finding the right amount of investment and partnership from governments and businesses in the region to make a successful bid.
One plan on the table envisions a research park, a university presence and a strengthened economy still centered on Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) said recently that a version of the plan called Southern Maryland 2020 requires an investment in education. With the right backers, he believes, it could boost Maryland’s chances of being designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as a test range for unmanned aerial systems. That, in turn, could secure the local economy and tax base.
The FAA plans to designate six sites by September 2015 to integrate commercial unmanned aerial systems into national air space, and the six sites approved would be the only areas approved for testing in civilian air space.
Maryland earlier joined with Virginia and New Jersey under the Mid-Atlantic Unmanned Aerial Systems Consortium to bid to become one of those sites. That group fell apart sometime in recent months, according to sources.
Now, the University of Maryland is taking the lead role in developing the FAA proposal for Maryland. Retired Navy Capt. Matt Scassero, who had been hired as executive director of the consortium, is now employed by the university to write the proposal.
New Jersey and Virginia broke away from the group and, according to sources, Rutgers University has taken the lead for New Jersey and Virginia Tech is leading the effort in Virginia.
The FAA’s screening information request (SIR), which is similar to a government’s request for proposal, went out for bid on Feb. 14, after months of delays.
Bohanan said as many as 32 states have expressed interest in earning the designation from the FAA.
Scassero outlined the initiative at an October 2012 meeting of the Maryland Military Installation Council. At that time, Maryland was still part of the three-state consortium.
He said that the commercial unmanned aerial systems industry is estimated to exceed $89 billion.
Research park is proposed
“We’re trying to get an agreement with the University of Maryland system to put a footprint down here in Southern Maryland with a research park,” Gary Kessler, executive director of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, said. A research park would make Southern Maryland more appealing as one of the FAA’s six test ranges.
Kessler, a former St. Mary’s school board member, is an adviser on the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center board of governors. The state-built facility and surrounding area in Hollywood is one of the top contending spots for a research park.
And whether or not Maryland wins designation as one of the FAA’s six sites, a research park would help St. Mary’s diversify and help the economy stay strong, Bohanan said.
Kessler said that Bohanan and others are trying to create a strategic vision for what St. Mary’s County and the rest of Southern Maryland will look like in the year 2020.
Maryland has committed $500,000 to the effort, which was funneled to The Patuxent Partnership to assist in the initial effort to win the FAA designation.
Bohanan and others involved with Southern Maryland 2020 plan to send a letter this week to county commissioners and other leaders in St. Mary’s, Calvert and Charles counties presenting the plan and suggesting funding to help jump-start the economic diversification effort and attract state and federal investment.
The St. Mary’s commissioners took an initial step last week in applying for a $25,000 federal grant and putting up matching funding for a comprehensive study of the county’s economic potential.
Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) made a pitch Tuesday to add $350,000 to the county’s department of economic and community development for the diversification effort. No decision on that budget item was made Tuesday.
“We’ve got to protect the base,” Commission President Jack Russell (D) said Monday. He said then that the county is looking at committing more resources to enhance that effort, and that he is concerned with “the big picture.”
The next hurdle may be getting all of the players, including county and state officials, Navy and military contracting companies, and higher education leaders, to work together, some of those involved in those efforts said.
The ultimate goal, Kessler said, is for new business to spin off from the work that goes on at Pax River, which could include manufacturing items that in turn would be used on base, Kessler said.
“The base is still an anchor, and would continue to be an anchor” of the St. Mary’s economy, he said.
He compared the region to Huntsville, Ala., where an Army base and a NASA space flight center support local industry, and vice versa.
“We think Huntsville could be a model” by incorporating the military, a major university and businesses together, Kessler said.
Kessler said St. Mary’s has never focused energy on diversifying because the defense contracting business has been so lucrative over the years.
“We’re kind of a one-trick pony,” Kessler said.
Boosting higher education
The University of Maryland System through several of its state universities currently provides instructors to teach classes leading to bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center.
The Southern Maryland 2020 vision includes bringing in a much larger presence from the state university system, including $50 million or more to chip in for a third building at the higher education center.
The Maryland legislature about two years ago approved about $11 million for a third building on the California campus. At the time, construction would have started as soon as 2013 with the building open in the second half of 2014.
Plans were put on hold last summer in hopes that the University of Maryland would participate, and that the third building would become part of a bigger research park at the higher education campus, complete with a business incubator.
“Only time will tell if all of that materializes,” Kessler said.
Mel Powell, executive director of the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, and other educators have said that there are many smart students coming out of high schools in Southern Maryland, but that they leave to go to universities that focus on research.
“It’s a major investment,” Powell said. The project would involve paying faculty and buying expensive lab equipment, in addition to the actual building, he said.
Powell at the end of January wrote a letter to William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland, asking whether he would be interesting in funding the new building and expanding its academic footprint in St. Mary’s.
The letter also outlines the need for a larger research presence locally to support Pax River missions.
Staff writer Jason Babcock contributed to this report.