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Detrick a lifeline for area businesses

December 14, 2008|By ARNOLD PLATOU

FREDERICK, Md. -- Whether it's to fix a typewriter or to design an office, Ronica Smith has known for decades she's got one vitally important customer: Fort Detrick.

Now, more than ever.

This past spring, Smith's six-employee company landed a contract worth "pretty close" to $850,000 to furnish most of a five-story building at Detrick.

"Fort Detrick has been a lifesaver for our business," said Smith, president of Mason-Dixon Office Interiors Corp. of Frederick.

The military installation that increasingly is home to large governmental biomedical laboratories and agencies representing five Cabinet-level departments has become a magnet and a lifesaver to many businesses in Frederick County.

Detrick "is really the engine of our economy in this region," said Marie Keegin, executive director of the Fort Detrick Alliance. It is a nonprofit organization representing about 75 businesses and organizations in Frederick and Washington counties.

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The more than 40 organizations at the post issue billions of dollars in contracts and grants every year.

A total isn't easy to come by.

But in fiscal 2008, one of the largest organizations at Detrick -- the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC) -- awarded $3.4 billion in contracts, grants and modifications, said Jerome K. Maultsby, associate director of its Office of Small Business Programs.

Of that, nearly $129 million went to businesses in Frederick city and county, Maultsby said.

Because of the jobs such contracts create, Keegin said, Detrick's work generates approximately "half a billion dollars in local salaries and subcontracts" a year.

In all, about 8,100 people work at the post. About 1,300 of them are assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Command military unit that supports the many research agencies there.

In addition, roughly 1,300 others work outside the post at the 63 biotech companies drawn to the county by Detrick's scientific work, said Mike Dailey, executive director and president of Frederick Innovative Technology Center Inc.

Lending a hand

Helping many of those companies get started is Dailey's responsibility.

He heads a nonprofit organization that represents local community, government and business leaders, working to help young biotech and information technology companies grow their businesses enough that each can go out on its own eventually.

In 2004, it opened its first so-called business incubator at Hood College, converting about 10,000 square feet of classroom space into six laboratories and 10 offices "to find out if there was demand for such space, and we found out there was, indeed. We filled it up immediately," Dailey said.

So, soon after, it began renovating another building in Frederick, converting about 12,000 square feet into 10 labs and about 30 offices.

"And, we filled that one very quickly, too," he said.

Thus far, eight of the biotech companies have "graduated," moving out on their own when their business exceeds $5 million a year, and/or employ at least 10 people or have landed more than $3 million in institutional funding, Dailey said.

While that opened incubator space for other fledgling companies, it created a "very challenging time for many of" the graduates, he said. Often, these young biotechs don't have enough money to build their own labs and landlords aren't willing either, he said.

So a study has begun to determine whether an "accelerator" -- an advanced incubator with larger facilities for developing biotech companies -- should be built.

"I don't think there is any doubt" of the need, Dailey said.

A conduit into Detrick

Regardless of whether a company is new or old, and from Frederick County or not, Darryl Rekemeyer's job is to help them learn how to bid for the contracts Detrick offers.

"We are the conduit into Fort Detrick for the business community," said Rekemeyer, director of the Fort Detrick Business Development Office, which opened in 2005. "When I say that, it's for the small business, the diversity business, the not-for-profit business, the large business, as well."

"You come in and say, 'Darryl, this is what I do.' We will train you and introduce you to some people ... When you finish up with our business, you will be prepared to meet the criteria that the contracting folks are looking for at Fort Detrick."

The office offers free training on such topics as "What's a government contract?" and "How do I write proposals?"

And then, there's the all-important: "How do I get registered with CCR" -- which is 'Central Contractor Registration,'" Rekemeyer said. He laughed. "You have to be in that for the simple reason of, if you're not in that, you won't get paid."

Also important for bidders to learn is something Rekemeyer calls the "elevator pitch." It's the skill of giving your company's message sure and fast -- before one of the always-busy people awarding Detrick's contracts "gets off the elevator," he said.

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