The restaurants around Fort Monmouth in New Jersey used to be packed. Now that lunchtime crowd gathers 150 miles to the southwest, in Aberdeen.
Javier Rodriguez, who just relocated to Aberdeen Proving Ground last month, was struck by the familiar feeling the mass migration has created in his still-unfamiliar new home.
"I went out to lunch with a couple of my co-workers … and it was exactly how I remembered it when I first started at Fort Monmouth," said Rodriguez, 33.
The national reshuffling of military bases that has brought thousands of jobs to Maryland hits a key milestone this week: It's officially done.
The workers who chose to relocate are here. The hundreds of moving trucks, laden with computers, documents and lab equipment, have come and gone. The glassy $4 billion dollar complexes — at Aberdeen, Fort Meade, Fort Detrick in Frederick, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda and Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County — are essentially complete.
But the ripple effects of the base realignment and closure process known as BRAC are just getting started.
Defense contractors still are moving to the area. Retailers are opening new businesses. Builders are erecting apartments and offices. Commuters are battling clogged roads. Schools are educating students about keeping their noses clean so they can one day land the security clearance necessary to qualify for a job in Maryland's now-larger military-industrial complex.
And the federal agencies that moved from out of state are preparing for the next big logistical challenge: replacing potentially thousands of employees in the near future as older workers retire.
What has happened — and is still happening — is more than simply growth.
"This has been a transformation," said Jim Richardson, director of economic development in Harford County, where the number of upscale office parks has multiplied in the last few years from one to six.
About 19,000 jobs, many from New Jersey and Northern Virginia, were moved to five Maryland installations as part of the realignment. The Baltimore region absorbed the largest number, with about 8,000 jobs going to Aberdeen Proving Ground and 5,700 jobs to Fort Meade.
The state projected that by 2015 or so, BRAC would bring 45,000 to 60,000 jobs, counting defense contractors and the businesses — from restaurants to day care centers — that benefit when a community's size and spending power grows.
Mike Hayes, who heads the state's Office of Military & Federal Affairs, said he remains confident the state ultimately will see that level of growth.
Contractors responding to BRAC so far have added about 7,000 jobs that the state knows of — Hayes believes the actual number is higher — and both Harford and Anne Arundel counties are seeing building boomlets at an otherwise slow time for construction.
Add in the substantial non-BRAC growth at Fort Meade — which state economic officials like to do — and Hayes said the job total is already close to the low end of the 45,000-to-60,000 projection.
The expansion of existing organizations at Fort Meade, including the National Security Agency, and new efforts such as Cyber Command have added about 14,000 jobs since 2005, on top of the BRAC effect.
The state always expected that it would take a few years beyond 2011 for all the contractors to follow their agencies, but even so, defense firms' pace of relocation and hiring has been relatively subdued.
Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, said uncertainty about how much the deficit-saddled federal government will have to cut from the defense budget is holding companies back.
But he thinks the base expansions have been an unambiguous economic win for the state, not only in the number but also the type of jobs gained. The new commands are filled with high-tech, high-paying civilian positions in defense communications, electronics and information technology.