Historic and High-Tech
St. Mary’s County, MD
St. Mary’s County’s prime location puts it not far from Washington D.C. and just a four-hour drive to New York City. Given it hosts Naval Air Station Patuxent River – also known as NAS Pax River – and many aerospace and technology companies, complementary businesses can access skilled talent. And from a quality-of-life perspective, it is a great place to live and raise a family, with options including rural, semi-rural, and suburban areas.
With its breathtaking scenery to its strong and diverse economy, Maryland is one of the most desirable locations to live, work, and play in the eastern United States. The state was one of the thirteen original colonies, founded in 1624 and named after Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I.
Its early immigrants sought religious freedom in a new land and made the long, trans-oceanic voyage from England aboard the Ark and the Dove in 1633 and 1634, founding the settlement of St. Mary’s in 1637. The descendants of many of these people still live in the area almost four hundred years after their ancestors first set foot on its shores.
St. Mary’s County, on a peninsula with over five hundred miles of shoreline, is bordered by the Patuxent River on one side, the Potomac River on the other, and Chesapeake Bay at the bottom. Owing to its waterfront location and quality land, the area has several seafood-related industries and is prized for its blue crabs, oysters, clams, horseshoe crabs, and fish.
Agriculture is another prime economic driver. The area was known for tobacco production, and although some Amish and Mennonite farmers still grow tobacco, today’s cash crops primarily are wheat, soy, and corn, much of it coming from modest farms of between fifty and one hundred acres each.
“Our history is in the land and the sea, so we were growing tobacco and are still big into oysters and crabs,” says St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development Director Chris Kaselemis.
While some seafood is available straight from the water and served at area restaurants, local producers like Hollywood Oyster are famous for their delicious Sweet Jesus oysters, grown from oyster seed in its hatchery. The Patuxent River oysters are carefully cultivated in cages and sold across America to the finest restaurants and wholesalers.
“It’s a growing industry, taking the land and the sea and continuing to get the bounty from it and make a living,” states Kaselemis.
St. Mary’s County capitalizes on its location and heritage and is today home to a number of farmers’ markets, wineries, and distilleries, including Tobacco Barn Distillery, which produces bourbon, rum, and other fine spirits. The distillery uses local raw materials, such as its own farm-raised corn for whiskies to both add delicious and complex flavors and support the local economy and the environment. The protein-rich by-product of alcohol production is fed to pigs and cows instead of going to waste.
St. Mary’s County has a median age of thirty-six and one of the highest average household annual incomes at $86,987, greater than the rest of Maryland’s $74,551 and considerably more than the average for the rest of the U.S. at $53,889. Although house prices are about twenty percent greater than the national average, they are still considerably less than Washington, D.C., just fifty-four miles away.
The county has more aerospace engineers per capita than anywhere else in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, the area has the fifth-highest concentration of technological workers in the country, even more than technology hubs like the D.C., Seattle, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.
NAS Pax River is a significant presence and a key employer, with an estimated seventy-five percent of the local economy dominated by the station. PAX River was commissioned in 1943 during the Second World War and serves many purposes. It has the prestigious and respected U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), and access to the Atlantic Test Range. PAX River is also a valuable testing ground for naval aviation systems.
Naval Air Station Patuxent River has about 25,000 people – some working directly for the base, others as contractors – and roughly fifty tenants involved in testing and evaluation, including civilian contract people doing research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E). Companies perform extensive tests on naval aircraft at over three hundred laboratories, determine results, and make modifications deemed necessary.
“If you are modifying an aircraft in some way, you have to make sure that equipment works, that it is still airworthy, and make adjustments to it,” says Kaselemis. “It is really interesting.”
PAX River has an impressive 8.2 million square feet of facilities and 890 buildings, making it the U.S. Navy’s primary area for research, testing, engineering, development, and fleet support, performing over 144,000 air operations annually.
One of the target industries for the county is unmanned autonomous systems (UAS), better known as drones. “The base does a lot of leading research and development on drones, and some companies are in that space doing military and non-military drone work.”
St. Mary’s County has major employers including the Naval Air Station, MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and is well-suited for a range of business types. Kaselemis and his department are working on the St. Mary’s County Innovation District as a place to start and grow companies involved in manufacturing, fabrication, and assembly. The innovation district will be truly distinctive, with invention and innovation labs, workshops, maker-spaces, and technical support as well as places to live, eat, shop, use personal services, and more, all accessible by various modes of transportation, including walking, biking, automotive, and public transit.
The area’s assets include the St. Mary’s County Regional Airport and the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, with a new $80 million building to be constructed soon, and owned and operated by the University System of Maryland. The site presently the home of TechPort business technology incubator – owned by St. Mary’s County and operated by the University of Maryland – the University of Maryland UAS test site, and a range of aviation-related and non-aviation private businesses. It also offers the Wildewood Retail Center, vacant land slated for development, and a range of residential properties, townhomes, and single-family in the Wildewood neighborhood.
“These assets are the building blocks of an innovation district, but they need to be tied together with a common vision and physically through a network of roadways, bike routes, and walking paths,” states the county. “The innovation district will allow residents to work, live, and play within the district.”
The St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development is in the process of branding the area and, working with consulting firms, is updating its website, determining what it has to offer, using social media, and travelling to conferences and events outside the area.
“To get a high-paying job a lot of times, you have to go to an urban area,” says Kaselemis. “Here, you can get a high-paying job, live on the water, go to your job, and be home and on your kayak in half an hour. You can’t do that in San Francisco.”