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The secret business of building spy buildings

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ANNAPOLIS JUNCTION, Md. -- It looks like any other office park in the U.S. -- a series of boxy buildings nestled in a sleepy suburb with ample parking and easy access to a highway. But many of the National Business Park's offices here are fortified to prevent eavesdropping by enemy satellites. A protective film coats the windows to stop probing microwaves.

Some of the buildings have signs outside identifying their tenants. Others are anonymous -- the only clues to their inhabitants are the foreboding black fences and the black-clad security guards.

The park's owner is Corporate Office Properties Trust, of nearby Columbia, Md., whose innocuous name belies the James Bond nature of its business: The publicly traded real-estate investment trust builds secure office space for the nation's intelligence community.

Its strategy has coincided perfectly with the boom in defense and homeland security spending, particularly around Washington, D.C. That growth has boosted Corporate Office Properties Trust's stock price on the New York Stock Exchange: shares have risen nearly 41 percent on average in each of the past three years, according to Morningstar Inc.

Now, the company is poised for another growth spurt. The U.S. military's impending base realignment could relocate thousands of defense personnel to Fort Meade, home to the clandestine National Security Agency and next to National Business Park. Based on Defense Department recommendations, the company said as many as 5,300 new jobs could come to Fort Meade.

The company also is likely to benefit from enhanced security requirements for government buildings, which will move employees out of dense areas in and around Washington, D.C., and into the suburbs, where Corporate Office Properties has room to construct buildings that meet security measures.

President and Chief Executive Officer Randall M. Griffin says his strategy is to build offices near the "soft side" of defense -- agencies involved in information processing, software development and communications.

He is convinced intelligence will remain vital to national defense, while the manufacture of "hard" weapons systems, like tanks, depend more on the cycles of military spending and strategy.

The business parks themselves are unremarkable -- even their names are bland. Airport Square, for instance, is an office park near the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Four- and five-story buildings, each with its own parking lot, line a neatly landscaped road. There is a Marriott and a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant. Next to the Hilton Homewood Suites is an unidentified building with tinted windows and a guard shack in front. A security officer holds a guard dog on a leash.

In some cases, Corporate Office Properties says the company doesn't know who the occupants of its buildings are. It's an odd position for a publicly traded REIT, which lists tenants in its annual reports.

Corporate Office Properties is like other REITs in that it buys, develops and manages real estate and passes most of its profits to investors. It has a market capitalization of $1.2 billion and last year posted revenue of $243 million. The majority of its shares are owned by institutions, with the largest single shareholder being Adelante Capital Management LLC, according to data tracker Thomson Financial. Members of Congress who deal with national security and defense spending are permitted to invest in Corporate Office Properties. By law, members of Congress must regularly disclose their finances.

Corporate Office Properties has cornered the market in leasing offices to the intelligence community. Analysts say the company has the necessary land, security clearances and relationships with defense contractors that make it difficult for competitors to grab a significant portion of the business.

While the company must remain transparent to shareholders, it also has to be able to keep government secrets. "We really don't know who is in there," Griffin says. "And if we do know, we don't talk about it."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the company's largest single tenant. The Corps leases office space and then turns it over to government agencies without disclosing the occupants' identity to the owner. Government tenants and related defense contractors account for 47 percent of Corporate Office Properties' business. It also leases offices elsewhere to corporate tenants.

One reason for its success is obvious: locations near the nation's capital. The National Business Park sits on 230 acres of former dairy fields along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland. The park's tenants include defense contractors -- Titan Corp., Booz Allen Hamilton Corp. and General Dynamics Corp.

The company owns another large office park in Chantilly, Va., outside Washington Dulles International Airport. That sprawling campus houses contractors that feed the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates satellites and drone aircraft.

Corporate Office Properties also has made a specialty out of building what is known in the industry as "sensitive compartmented information facilities," that are designed to keep conversations secret from the outside world. Without that protection, "someone could beam a microwave at the building and hear a conversation in the men's room," Griffin says. The office park in Chantilly has a secure auditorium for classified briefings for large groups of defense contractors.

The company has an agreement to purchase more than 600 acres at the former Fort Ritchie Army base in Cascade, Md., near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.

At the request of Maryland's U.S. senators, the state Attorney General is examining the Fort Ritchie deal, after community members complained that the company was paying below fair market value for a property that, they say, was never appraised.

Corporate Office Properties has agreed to buy Fort Ritchie for $5 million with the stipulation that it would pay an additional $4 million if it failed to create 1,400 jobs within nine years of redeveloping the base. "They are kind of stealing the store, but you can't blame them. I can't say they did anything wrong," said Ron Sulchek, a board member of PenMar Development Corp., a state agency overseeing the redevelopment of the former base. Sulchek voted against selling Fort Ritchie to Corporate Office Properties.

George Griffin, chairman of PenMar's board and no relation to Corporate Office Properties' Griffin, said the majority of the board believes the sale price is fair. He said an appraisal wouldn't accurately reflect all the work the company must do to redevelop the site.

Griffin of Corporate Office Properties also dismissed the criticism. "The ground price is immaterial," he says. "We are going to invest $250-$300 million for redevelopment costs."

Corporate Office Properties started out as a retail REIT in 1988 under the name of Royale Investments. A decade later, it merged with Constellation Real Estate Group Inc., which owned a mix of land, nursing homes and three office buildings next to Fort Meade. In the early 1990s, one of the building's only tenants was a retired general who rented a first floor office. Another building sat empty for five years.

After the merger, Corporate Office Properties sharpened its focus -- today, all 1.5 million-square-feet of space at the National Business Park is leased and four new buildings are being developed on the site.

"They've done a good job of reinventing themselves" by cultivating a specialty in high-security offices, said Andrew Rosivach, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston.

Corporate Office Properties' Griffin, 60 years old, is a former Army lieutenant who served in Vietnam as part of an elite unit that advised the South Vietnamese Army through heavy combat. He went on to work in real estate, including a stint heading nontheme park related development at EuroDisney in France.

In March, Corporate Office Properties hired a retired colonel from the Army Corps whose unit used to locate office space for the intelligence community. "We were trying to find someone who could speak that language," Griffin said. The former officer, Charles J. Fiala Jr., now has more than 30 people working on expanding its government and defense contractor business.

If the homeland security boom slows, the company's offices can be leased to regular tenants. For now, "we just don't see signs of that," Griffin says.

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