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A merger of the University System of Maryland and the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center is one step closer after leaders signed an agreement this month for a new building at the California campus.

A merger could open up educational and business opportunities for the region, officials said Friday during a signing agreement at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons.

“We are here, we are part of this community,” USM Chancellor William Kirwan said. He said this agreement will allow the university system to grow its presence in Southern Maryland to new levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and business incubation.

The Southern Maryland Higher Education Center’s board of governors in late September unanimously agreed to enter into discussions about merging with USM. A merger would likely involve the state’s public university taking over some or all of the higher education campus in California, including the planned 38,000-square-foot building planned for classroom use and business incubation.

Planning money to the tune of $1.5 million was awarded to USM for this fiscal year to begin work on the new building.

Patrick J. Hogan, USM’s vice chancellor for government relations, said the design will be completed by fiscal year 2015 and, pending no problems, construction could follow with the building ready to open by the summer of 2017.

Glen Ives, president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance and a former commanding officer at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, said before signing the agreement that the merger has been a tough sell to some. Ives, who is also on the higher education center’s board, said that in the long run the university system’s presence will be beneficial for Southern Maryland.

“These are tough issues and there are a lot of things that are going to have to change,” Ives said, giving his full support to the project.

Still to be worked out is exactly how much direct oversight the university system and its board of regents, which oversees a dozen of the state’s public colleges, will have over the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center’s campus and program offerings.

The two current buildings at the center house classes for advanced degrees from about a dozen different institutions, including some small and large private colleges and universities. The center’s board can approve a new course of study, which is then forwarded to the state’s higher education council.

Maryland’s public university system already has the right of first refusal to offer the course through one of its colleges. “We’re really here to support the hopes and dreams of this region,” Kirwan said in an interview after the signing. “Our agenda is the region’s agenda.”

When asked if current programs offered by some of the smaller, private institutions would still exist once the merger, and the third building at the higher education center, is complete, Kirwan said, “I think there’s no reason for them not to continue.” He said the university system will welcome partnerships with other groups and institutions.

“We’ll see an enhanced relationship,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) said. He said the new building and the continuing education opportunities it brings will make Southern Maryland more competitive and attract new jobs.

“We’re one of the economic engines of the state, but we’re not necessarily perceived as that,” Hoyer said, adding that the money and ideas that flow through Pax River are immense.

Joseph Anderson, chair of the higher education center’s board of governors, said the partnership will allow for more opportunities to enhance the local workforce.

Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) said the agreement was “the beginning of what will be a very fruitful partnership.”He said that 20 years ago Southern Maryland geared up to position itself well for upcoming base realignment and closure processes, which resulted in big gains at Pax River.

The higher education center, built in part to address the need to provide education and training to an influx of workers on base, was established in 1994.

“Now it’s time to roll up the shirt sleeves and start working again,” Bohanan said. “Where do we want to be by the year 2020 and beyond?”

Hoyer and other speakers at the ceremony lavished praise on Bohanan, who chairs the House of Delegates subcommittee dealing with appropriations for education, for his work on the partnership agreement.

“Investing in education is an important aspect of success in the future,” Hoyer said. “We’re not doing a very good job of that at the federal level, and it’s a shame.”

Hoyer also spoke about the across-the-board cuts to federal spending that are still in place known as sequestration. He said cuts to items like research at the National Institutes of Health could lead to long-term problems.

“We need to make sure the richest country in the world has a psychology of success, not a psychology of retreat,” Hoyer said.

Maryland formed a coalition with New Jersey and Virginia to vie for one of the six Federal Aviation Administration designation sites to test unmanned aerial systems for civilian use. The FAA is expected to release a list of those sites by the end of this year.

“I’m very optimistic” for the designation to come through for Maryland, Hoyer said. “I think we have a good shot.”

The designation, which if approved for Maryland would open up opportunities for new research and businesses, could tie in with the business incubator portion of the new higher education center building, officials said.

jyeatman@somdnews.com