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By: Amanda Winters, originally written for MDBizNews
A new innovation district is forming in Southern Maryland, with help from the university system, a regional airport, government officials, and several local businesses.
The area – located between Lexington Park and California, Md. – is anchored by St. Mary’s County Regional Airport; the University of Maryland (UMD) UAS Test Site; the University System of Maryland at Southern Maryland, formerly known as the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center; Tech Port, a business technology incubator run by UMD; and IMPAX, a company contracted to find innovative solutions for the U.S. Navy.
There’s also a professional business park, the Wildwood retail shopping center, and a residential area that borders the future innovation district, making it a true mixed-use, walkable community for St. Mary’s County residents.
“This region has all the necessary aspects to make it a thriving innovation district,” said Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz. “By locating these anchor institutions and up-and-coming businesses in one central place, collaboration can take over and help everyone grow and succeed in St. Mary’s County.”
“The airport area is really growing—it’s one of our primary focuses for economic development,” Chris Kaselemis, director for St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development.
Kaselemis explained that even though the area’s growth has been years in the making, it is picking up speed and was recently recognized by the former president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, who visited the region with a delegation during his last month in office.
While in Maryland, President Varela visited one of the aviation modification companies on-site, Airtec Inc., which is working on a high-priority aircraft project under Smartronix’s the United States Southern Command contract. The re-development of the Panamanian Beechcraft 350 twin-engine plane will help provide Panama with an aircraft suitable for counter-narcotics surveillance throughout its diverse terrain, with the advanced sensors and communications systems needed during security missions.
Nearby the Panamanian plane project are additional institutions playing a role in the growing aviation industry, including the UMD UAS test site, which assisted in the ground-breaking delivering of a donor’s kidney for a scheduled transplant in Baltimore, as well as newly-invested-in companies that are moving into hangars at the regional airport.
A few doors down is the incubator Tech Port, which specializes in unmanned and autonomous systems. The tech space was created after St. Mary’s County received funding from the U.S. Navy, and the county later hired UMD to run the facility.
“There’s a lot of start-ups and innovation and technology happening. It has the makings of an innovation district,” said Kaselemis. “The master planning project will help make it cohesive and planned out…like getting from one place to another, including bike paths, and more.”
Meanwhile, the University System of Maryland at Southern Maryland is working on constructing a third building for autonomous systems for air, land, and sea, as well as research and development teaching and testing. According to a study completed in 2018, more than 43,000 jobs in the tri-county region will require a bachelor’s degree or higher by the year 2024; the needs of the tri-county workforce will be met through this new higher education center in Southern Maryland. The future 72,000 square-foot building and is slated to receive several millions of dollars in funding through Governor Hogan’s FY2020 budget.
With Naval Air Station Patuxent River less than 10 miles away, it’s easy to see why this area’s aviation industry is taking flight—but state and county representatives remind us that the work being done is helping diversify the region and isn’t reliant on the nearby naval base.
“We’ve got a world-class military test and evaluation facility that does the greatest things for the Navy and the Marines, but we’re looking at really spurring something outside of this economic engine,” said Steve Wall, Maryland Commerce’s senior business development representative for Southern Maryland.
“It’s really about innovating these cool companies around the airport. Hopefully, in a few years, we’ll have the University of Maryland’s engineering school, so we can bring young people here to obtain a four-year degree while having the base, technologies, and businesses available to support them.”