As the first drivers roll down a new $75 million stretch of White Marsh Boulevard today, they will wind through one of the few large undeveloped commercial tracts on the East Coast accessible to Interstate 95. They will head toward a place that once provided a living for tens of thousands of workers but fell on hard times.
And they will see the beginnings of what could be a new center of employment and the dollars that come with it.
More than two decades in the works, the new Maryland Route 43 will open today with high expectations - and even a parade.
"In the last 10 years I can't think of any one project that was comparable to this with the new road and the new industrial opportunities," said Daraius Irani, director of applied economics at RESI, Towson University's research and consulting arm.
"It's been called the road to opportunity, because it's not for transportation," said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "It's for jobs."
Though only a handful of empty brick buildings now line the route, officials envision high-tech businesses flocking to this stretch of eastern Baltimore County, employing thousands and sparking a period of growth comparable to the area's heyday in the middle of the last century. And state and county officials say the road and the tract could not open at a better time.
The new, 3.8-mile section breaks open a 1,000-acre plot in Middle River where construction has begun on two business parks. County officials hope that the area - convenient to Aberdeen Proving Ground, highways and growing neighborhoods - will attract businesses relocating to Maryland through the federal base realignment plan.
But residents express concern that the influx of high-tech businesses might spoil the area's rural charm.
"It takes away the country feeling," said Wanda Blake of Chase, as she bought roses and balloons at Mockin' Bird Hill Florist on Ebenezer Road. Nearby, goats and horses grazed at several small farms.
White Marsh Boulevard, which previously ran from the Beltway to I-95 before looping to an end at Pulaski Highway, now connects with Eastern Boulevard near a Lockheed Martin facility and a MARC train station. It links White Marsh, which has experienced an explosion of development in the past two decades, with Middle River, an area that officials have sought to reinvigorate in recent years.
In the 1940s and '50s, thousands of young families were drawn to the Middle River and Essex areas by well-paying industrial jobs. But advances in technology and a changing global market rendered many of those jobs obsolete.
During World War II, the Glenn L. Martin Corp. employed more than 50,000 workers. Today, 1,200 people work at the company's offshoots, Lockheed Martin and Middle River Aircraft Systems, according to Fronda Cohen, the county's marketing director.
Likewise, Mittal Steel, the descendant of Bethlehem Steel, employs fewer than one-tenth of the workers it did during peak years, she said. For decades, the southeastern part of the county stagnated, plagued by a shortage of jobs, an excess of rundown apartment buildings and an increase in crime.
Then a transformation began in the Middle River area. Shoddily built apartment complexes were torn down and replaced with elegant homes. Developers began changing the image of the waterfront, from a place to sip a beer and drop a line, to a place to drop anchor - for a yacht.
Along the way, ideas came and went for a large spread of undeveloped land. The A.V. Williams tract, as it was known, was seen by some to be a good spot for an Asian theme park. Others pictured a NASCAR raceway there.
By the late 1990s, county and state leaders agreed on the plan to create business parks on the site and spur economic development through new jobs and property taxes. Officials estimate that up to 10,000 jobs will be created along the 3.8 mile stretch of road in the next decade.
By the formula used by Irani, the Towson University economist, 5,500 to 11,000 jobs could be created at the site. He compared the road construction to the recently approved Inter-county Connector, designed to expedite travel between Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
But the scope of development opportunities brought by the White Marsh Boulevard extension to the property is unprecedented in this area, Irani said.
"It's rare to have such a large industrial space in this part of the country," he said. "We're not putting them in some cornfields. You're putting them in between a growing suburban community in Harford and a potentially growing area in eastern Baltimore County."
The project has received support from Republicans and Democrats. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has made it a priority, said his spokesman Henry P. Fawell.
"He's well aware of the opportunities and the jobs that will come with this road," Fawell said.
The State Highway Administration put up $56.3 million for the project, and the county contributed $15.3 million. The property's owner, the A.V. Williams Trust, contributed $2.5 million and 34 acres. A.V. Williams, a developer and contractor who built parts of the Baltimore and Washington beltways, died in 1992 at age 97.
Developers of two business parks along the expanded Route 43, Baltimore Crossroads @ 95 and Windlass Run, are working to attract companies that specialize in biopharmacology, information technology, defense contracting, light manufacturing and business services, said David Ianucci, the county's economic development director.
"Baltimore County is able to compete for major business opportunities because of the existence of that business park," he said.
The fact that the road's opening comes shortly after the base realignment announcement creates an excellent opportunity for developers, he said.
"It puts us in a superb position to capture hundreds, if not thousands, of BRAC-related jobs," he said.
St. John Properties has constructed four buildings, but only Alexander's Mobility, a company that specializes in corporate relocations, has agreed to move to the park. That should change now that the road has been built, Ianucci said.
"It's really tough to market a piece of property before you have access to it," he said.
Developers have cleared and graded several other plots, and St. John plans to raise three new structures soon.
In addition to creating sites attractive to a range of businesses, developers must heed a complex set of environmental regulations, said David Carroll, director of the county's environmental division. The road twists and turns to avoid wetlands and other vulnerable areas. Development is allowed only in designated portions of the 1,000 acres.
Today, the opening of the road will be marked with speeches and a parade. A marching band will play, and veterans of the Korean War, to whom the highway is dedicated, will participate.
Area residents say they hope the project will bring jobs and shorten commutes. But some wonder whether the expected hordes of new workers will worsen traffic problems.
Michael Vivirito, president of the improvement association in nearby Bowleys Quarters, said he worries that the new road will increase congestion on Eastern Boulevard. But he says that any potential traffic problems will be offset by the opportunities the project brings.
"A lot of people that live in this area also want to see their children work here, live here, stay down here in the area where they were raised," he said.