Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Proposed office park seen as future technology hub

Former sludge plant will be site of incubator for new businesses

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A proposed office park would become eastern Montgomery County’s answer to the Interstate 270 technology corridor as a hub for cutting-edge research and development, a county economic official and a developer told a White Oak citizens group last week.

The East County Center for Science and Technology, when completed, would have 800,000 square feet of office space over about a dozen buildings located off Industrial Parkway and U.S. Route 29 at the site of a former sludge treatment facility.

The preliminary plan was presented Feb. 28 at a meeting of the North White Oak Civic Association by Tina Benjamin, chief of staff for the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, and Steven A. Grigg, director of Republic Properties Corporation, the Washington, D.C.-based developer overseeing the project.

The 115-acre site was chosen because of its proximity to the Food and Drug Administration’s consolidated headquarters in White Oak and will be connected by road to the federal government facility, Benjamin said.

It would also be the site of a fifth location for the Montgomery County Business Incubator Program, targeting fledgling information technology and life sciences firms looking to work near FDA regulators, she said.

‘‘This will create jobs on the eastern side of the county,” Benjamin said.

The center would be built over an extended period of time, just as the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, which Benjamin and Grigg used as a comparison for the east county center, was built over 20 years. When completed, it would be a ‘‘self-contained” entity that could house around 3,000 employees, Grigg said. ‘‘Bio-science parks are not one element,” he said. ‘‘They have to work together with a mix of functions.”

The first two buildings constructed would be ‘‘incubators,” Grigg said, spaces where businesses selected for the county’s program could develop ideas. The businesses would also be able to create products at an on-site plant, he added.

The center would be built up as the businesses grow, allowing the now-established firms to move into some of the office space scattered around the site, Grigg said. Businesses participating in the Montgomery County Business Incubator Program have a success rate between 80 percent and 90 percent, Benjamin added.

A hotel and conference center may be included in the final plans, as well as an education facility used by a local college or university, he said. Small ‘‘support” retail, such as sandwich shops, would also be in the office park, Grigg added.

Montgomery County is already one of the leading areas in the country for life sciences, Benjamin and Grigg said, and the east county center would add to the county’s reputation.

‘‘People won’t know about this unless they are in the industry,” Grigg said. ‘‘If we don’t maintain [the county’s status], someone will take it.”

The office park would take the place of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s Site 2 regional composting plant, which processed 400 tons of sludge each day until it closed in 1999. Montgomery County had been in negotiations to take over the land from WSSC for four years, Benjamin said, until its Board of Commissioners voted Feb. 21 to sell it. The land transfer must be completed and the site plan must be approved by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, but even then construction will not begin until state environmental officials check the site for contamination, Benjamin said, drawing nods of approval from the 20 residents in attendance. The incubator buildings would be ready for occupants no sooner than 2010, Grigg said.

Residents’ main concerns were about additional traffic the center would bring, but Benjamin said employees at life sciences companies tend to work 60-plus hour weeks, often at odd hours, so the traffic impact would not be great.

Some were not convinced. ‘‘It’s a great idea, but the whole traffic situation has not been looked at comprehensively,” North White Oak Civic Association President Barry Wides said.

Still, those in attendance said an office park was better than a residential development. Annette Crawford liked the idea because she runs a home care business and was unable to get a spot with the incubator program at its Wheaton location.

Crawford said she would apply for the east county program, especially since she lives less than a mile away from the site. ‘‘It’s right in my back yard,” she said.