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Caution's reward: Patience pays off for Allegheny Power

April 02, 1999

Allegheny Energy Corp. believes the ramps being built from Interstate 70 to the Downsville Pike might just be the most significant quarter-mile strips of concrete laid in Washington County this decade.

Two years ago I would have said they were nuts. Today it looks as if they may be right.

In meaningfulness to the local economy, Allegheny may become as key as Fairchild aircraft once was, not through sheer number of jobs, but as the conduit for a solid base of good-paying, high-tech industries.

Surrounding its corporate headquarters, Allegheny owns 260 acres of ground it calls the Friendship Technology Park. The land runs for a half-mile along the interstate and includes property that will form the campus of the University of Maryland's Western Maryland branch.

The park, amid much fanfare, was introduced a decade ago, just in time for the big East Coast real estate crash. The timing, concedes Allegheny marketing director Mike Eckard, couldn't have been worse. For 10 years, nary a brick has been laid, nor a job created on the rolling fields.

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With the real estate market in a funk, Allegheny had a choice: Sell out the land for warehouses, strip malls and sprawl to make a quick buck, or wait for better conditions.

"We were a little ahead of our time, but we were committed to creating a high quality park," Eckard said. "We had owned the property since 1968, so we said we will be very patient; we will not short-circuit the property."

What a favor that turned out for be both for itself and the community.

Three significant things are happening for Allegheny: The interchange, the university and the fact that in Frederick County land is beginning to sell property not by the acre but by the square foot.

The latter point signifies that real estate is tightening and companies may be on the prowl for cheaper ground upon which to expand. High-tech growth "is ready to come across the mountain, finally," Eckard said.

Both Eckard and Washington County Economic Development Commission chief John Howard say many of the quality of life issues that squeezed firms out of the high-tech hub of Rockville and into Frederick now may push this attractive economic base further west, still.

"The quality of lifestyle here is very appealing. We're less hurried and harried than Frederick," Howard said. And with electronic communication advances, proximity to population centers is not the advantage to business it once was.

Location isn't always everything anymore. And some city in Japan may be just as significant a competitor with Washington County for economic growth as is Martinsburg, Howard said.

With all due respect to interchanges and purple mountain majesties though, the University of Maryland campus is likely to be the real set of jumper cables the technology park has been waiting for. Allegheny wisely is donating the land for the campus, knowing what a boost it could be for business.

Companies like the idea that employees can walk out of an office and into a classroom. And good, smart employees are more likely to settle here if they know that continuing-education opportunities are only a mile or two from their jobs.

Then there are the intangibles and, well, the psychologicals. High techs like to congregate in those lofty, erudite atmospheres of thought created by universities and like-minded businesses.

Allegheny, which is in the process of selecting a top-quality developer to manage the property, wants to create an uncrowded, handsomely landscaped business campus that could become a hot ticket for innovative firms that wish a little classier atmosphere than the typical suburban sprawlarama affords.

The benefits go without saying - good salaries, educated workforces, environmentally harmonious plants, likely served by a top-class hotel just off the interstate, along with other tastefully selected support businesses.

And this refined business community will be visible (and easily accessible) from the interstate, which in turn should attract even more interest and perhaps the development of other parks as well.

"A lot of business people travel the interstate; this will be a signal to them that Washington County has arrived," Eckard said.

Over the past decade Allegheny has received some criticism for not bringing any business to the Friendship Technology Park. But now, with the interchange and the University of Maryland campus at hand, it appears the company was smart to be picky.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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