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Southern Maryland's economic potential lies in the region's higher educational institutes producing highly technical and skilled workers for local military installments, according to area leaders.

On Monday at the College of Southern Maryland Prince Frederick campus, stakeholders, military officials and educators discussed Southern Maryland's potential economic growth during a forum titled “Southern MD Regional Update: Innovation, Diversification, Education and Anchors. It's all about regional collaboration,” hosted by The Patuxent Partnership, Southern Maryland Navy Alliance and the Energetics Technology Center.

Speakers included U.S. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan, Vice Adm. David Dunaway — commander of the Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River — and Naval Surface Warfare Center's acting technical director, Karen Burrows.

“Pax River, Indian Head and Webster Field have become anchors for regional growth and development,” Hoyer said. “But there's more work that we must do to ensure that they're there because they support the jobs that will help more of our workers make it in America.”

Hoyer suggested the next forum, planned in the coming months, be more of a discussion and “brainstorming session” among small groups instead of a series of presentations.

The state's economic development, Busch said, isn't going to grow unless there are investments in the university system “and the ability for people to take advantage of that system.”

Kirwan said the system is very proud of the role it has played in the region in working with the College of Southern Maryland, the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center and scientists and engineers at Pax River.

“All of that is good. It's great,” Kirwan said. “But what's so exciting today is how our hearts are now not just beating together, they're racing … over the opportunity that we have at this great moment to achieve a very exciting vision … to leverage the phenomenal assets that exist here in this three-county region and turn it into an economic powerhouse.”

Recently, the University System of Maryland signed an agreement with the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center for a third building located at the center proposed to be, in part, centered on development of unmanned systems, which in addition to aerial drones might include land and underwater machines, according to previous reports.

Darryll Pines, dean and professor of UMD's Clark School of Engineering, briefed the attendees on the school's new Federal Aviation Administration's program to test commercial and civilian drones in the region.

When the agreement between the university and the higher education center started in 2008, Pines said, this was something that wasn't envisioned at that time. “We just thought about an academic program to bring engineers from Southern Maryland, get a degree in Southern Maryland, work potentially at the base or for contractors supporting the base, and now we have the opportunity to bring a commercial entity and grow even more engineers and others with high-paying jobs in the region.”

The NAVAIR commander echoed similar sentiments of using highly skilled and technical workers in the region at the base. As NAVAIR moves forward through budget cuts, Dunaway said, the base hopes to pull new employees to replace outgoing employees from the “highly educated and highly capable” workforce in Southern Maryland.

“We're very excited to have the emphasis on education in the [region]. It is our lifeblood,” Dunaway said, adding that it “helps us to get to where we can spend our dollars in a better way.”

Burrows, of the naval warfare center in Indian Head, said her base, too, pulls employees from the “very highly skilled, very highly educated” people in the region.

In addition, the Naval Surface Warfare Center supports the local economy through awarding contracts to local businesses and employees who live in the area and spend their money in the area, she said.

Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development Secretary Dominick Murray concluded the day's presentations, saying Southern Maryland is becoming the hub of “Unmanned Automation Systems,” and it works hand-in-hand with the cyber security hub in Baltimore.

Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary's) praised Southern Maryland, saying, “What we have in place is what most communities across the nation would die for. The raw talent, the resources that we have, is just begging for us to take it to the next level.”

ascott@somdnews.com