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Detrick presents opportunities for Washington Co.

December 14, 2008|By ARNOLD PLATOU

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- If it helps to have friends in high places, Washington County's economy has one it needs in Col. Judith D. Robinson.

"I want to become much more engaged with Washington County," said Robinson, the U.S. Army garrison commander at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.

The Army post has begun offering businesses the chance to bid on nearly $1 billion in contracts, leading to thousands of well-paying biotech support and construction jobs in Frederick and beyond.

And, the base wants to partner with local schools to improve Washington County's science curriculum, Robinson said. This will strengthen career paths for students who eventually might work at Detrick and improve the schools for the families of Detrick workers who live here, she said.

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"Way I look at it is, I am you and you are me," Robinson told about 100 area business and education leaders gathered recently at the former Fort Ritchie Army base in Cascade in Washington County's northeastern corner.

As Detrick's needs grow, Washington County is one of the key places for the fort to look for businesses that can help meet its needs, Robinson said.

That's the message that local government officials hope companies here begin taking advantage of, said Robin Feree, deputy director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

"The expansions at Fort Detrick represent business potential to local businesses," Feree said.

But right now, he said, "the work and expansions at Fort Detrick have a low profile here in Washington County. For the most part, our businesses are not aware of the opportunities."

City within a city

Fort Detrick, a U.S. Army Medical Command installation supporting agencies that are national leaders in biomedical research and development, is a city within a city.

The post covers 1,127 acres -- 68 of them owned by the National Cancer Institute but ringed by the fort -- inside Frederick city.

In all, there are 8,100 employees, including hundreds of scientists and about 1,300 military personnel, working in more than 40 agencies. Most of them do medical research. Some are in strategic satellite communications and other military support functions.

Four U.S. Cabinet-level departments are at Detrick and a fifth is coming:

o The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is represented by two agencies, including the National Cancer Institute, which has about 3,000 employees working in about 100 buildings at Detrick.

o The U.S. Department of Defense has several agencies at the post. They include the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which together have 2,300 employees at Detrick.

o The U.S. Department of Agriculture employs about 50 workers at the Agricultural Research Service's Foreign Disease Weed Science Research Unit. In its Biological Safety Level 3 laboratories, it studies foreign crop diseases "in hopes that we can develop measures that farmers can use when they (these diseases) come to our shores," said Dr. Douglas Luster, research leader.

Part of this work is to develop "resistance genes" that can be bred into plants to fend off disease, he said.

Luster's teams also are researching biological control of weeds, "trying to use one organism to control another, instead of using chemicals. It's the more green, environmentally sustainable approach. We try to use plant pathogens -- the microbes that attack weeds -- to control weeds" without harming other plants, Luster said.

o The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently dedicated its National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center at Detrick. When the center opens next spring, its 140 scientists and technicians are to give the government new tools for predicting biological attacks and identifying those who commit bio-terror incidents and other so-called bio-crimes.

o The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs plans to build a Veterans Administration clinic at Detrick next year. Detrick spokesman Chuck Gordon said he doesn't know how many employees it will have.

More on the way

Lots more is coming, Robinson said.

"By the middle fall of 2009, I expect to have construction of or expansion of about seven buildings going on all at the same time," Robinson said.

Gordon said the nearly $1 billion in work that is to be done includes:

o Construction, now under way, on a building for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

o An expansion, already begun, of a building used by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

o Construction, due to be completed in January, of the Defense Medical Logistics Center.

o Construction, already under way, of the Armed Forces Reserve Center.

o Construction, not yet begun, of the Veterans Administration Community Based Outpatient Clinic.

o Construction of the Navy Medical Research Center, probably starting next year.

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