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Town of Indian Head Plans Future With or Without Nearby Base

CNS Photo by Kathleen Cullinan

Indian Head residents pride themselves on their access to the Potomac River. (CNS photo by Kathleen Cullinan)

By Kathleen Cullinan
Maryland Newsline
Friday, April 29, 2005

INDIAN HEAD, Md. - The lowest point for Indian Head was when the last grocery store packed up and left town a few years ago.

The SuperFresh followed a stream of movie theaters, pharmacies and other local businesses from the Charles County town that had tied its fortunes for more than a century to a nearby naval munitions base. But over the years, a divide grew between the town and its base.

About the same time that the SuperFresh left, town residents met to figure out how to dig out from decades of economic stagnation. And they decided that, while they do not want to see the base leave, they had to make their own future, with or without it.






"Indian Head was like a mining town in West Virginia. It was a company town," said John Bloom, a resident for more than 50 years who leads an advocacy group for the base. Townspeople used to be "totally tied and wedded to the base for just about everything," he said.

But at some point in the 1970s, the base surrounded itself with an 8-foot-tall chain-link fence, said John McWilliams, who just sold the Ford dealership his family had owned in Indian Head for much of the last century.

Now, even as lawmakers and locals work to keep the base off the Pentagon's list of military installations to close or consolidate, town officials and residents say Indian Head has learned to stand on its own. No matter what happens to the base in the upcoming Base Realignment and Closure round, they say, their economic future is finally looking brighter.

"We're just not going to be a thriving metropolis," said former Indian Head Mayor Warren Bowie. "We kind of want it to remain a quaint little town, but one that provides amenities that we can enjoy."

The future may not be so bright for the base itself. The Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head, which lawmakers said barely survived an earlier BRAC round, is rumored to be the most-endangered base in Maryland in this round.

Bloom said trimming or closing Indian Head would be "a major mistake."

"We have been told by military officials that what Indian Head does has critical military value," he said. "The question that is up for grabs is whether it should continue to be done on that 3,800 acres in Indian Head."

The base opened in 1890 and operated as a naval powder factory for decades. It eventually shifted to a high-tech research and testing facility. After the close call with BRAC in the 1990s, the base's supporters lobbied to land CBIRF, the Marine Corps' elite Chemical Biological Incident Response Force that they figured would help secure Indian Head's future.

In earlier years, say Bloom and other longtime residents, the town blended right into the base. Many people who worked on base lived in the town. When the town did not have an electric company or a firehouse, the base provided those amenities. Bloom remembers his mother walking to the supermarket to do her shopping in town.

"This is a story that little towns across the country can tell you," Bloom said. "It's not that it had that much, but it had something."

But as the work at Indian Head became more and more specialized, the base became more and more shut off from the town. Over the years, McWilliams said, mounting security "made it almost kind of an enclave, just sort of isolated, so that there's not a lot of back and forth between the base and the town."

Base workers turned to Waldorf and elsewhere to buy homes. Local businesses soon followed, culminating with the closing of the last supermarket.

"People got quite upset" when the grocery left, said Indian Head Mayor Ed Rice, more upset than they got about anything that happens on the base.

Sandwiched in a world of ever-larger grocery stores and an ever-more secure base, the town of Indian Head struggled to find its identity. At a community day, town officials listened as about 50 people debated the kind of town they wanted Indian Head to become.

Just 25 miles from Washington, with a pedestrian-friendly location at the end of a highway and miles of waterfront property, the town could have grown in several directions. But the consensus that day, Bowie said, was that Indian Head should be a "quiet, quaint little town."

"What we're trying to do is bring back the old downtown," Rice said.

To achieve the look and feel of a small town, the town designated mixed-use zones to bring commercial and residential buildings within walking distance of each other. New housing went up, and Bowie says the town sponsored a program to help local businesses renovate the facades of their buildings.

But it is a balancing act: Town officials realize they must grow to stay "little."

There still is no grocery store, and Rice said town officials have been "hounded by the residents for years" about luring another one in. The town has met with grocery companies, who tell them that Indian Head still does not have the population to support the "big box" stores they want to build.

"None of them are interested," Rice said.

But he and others feel that Indian Head has finally turned a corner.

Local advocates will still eagerly tout the virtues and promise of the base to anyone who will listen, including the Pentagon. The base at Indian Head has been a boon not only to the town, where it has been a fixture for more than 100 years, but to Charles County, where it is very much an economic driver.

But there is also a feeling that the town is probably strong enough to fare well, regardless of what the Pentagon does to the base.

"Eventually, the town will be a winner," Rice said.


Copyright 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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