Army post closing bittersweet chapter Business park coming to Fort Ritchie site

July 18, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

CASCADE -- After more than 70 years as a military post, Fort Ritchie symbolically closed a chapter on Army life yesterday evening with a formal ceremony in which the U.S. Garrison flag was rolled up for the final time.

Armed with deck chairs and blankets, cameras and coolers, thousands of people staked out places on a field in a center of the fort to watch the 5 p.m. inactivation of the small, cozy military post in picturesque Cascade, which those who live in the area say has grown on them over the years.

"It's kind of sad," said Deborah Phillips, 39, of Hagerstown, who said she took her children Kia, 12, and Eric, 5, to the ceremony to learn about patriotism and camaraderie.

"It's losing what you know," said the child care center director, "and having to look to the future and not really knowing what's there."

Phillips' sentiment echoed the area's initial concerns when Army officials announced three years ago that the post, with more than 2,400 personnel, would close. Residents and elected officials worried about the impact the closure would have on businesses in Cascade, a quiet town of about 2,000 people fenced by a scenic stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountain range.

So far, the plan is to turn the 638-acre post into a business park that developers hope will attract high-tech companies.

"It's going to change the face of Washington County," said Robert P. Sweeney, executive director of PennMark Development Corp., which is planning the business park. "The Army looks at this as the end, but we look at it as a new

beginning."

Even though about 1,000 Army personnel were still based at Fort Ritchie, PennMark started leasing space on the post like an impatient new landlord about a year ago.

The company leased housing to military still in the area and office space to the International Masonry Institute, which has a staff of 20 on the post and plans to expand.

Sweeney said the company will start constructing office building space next spring.

Even with these plans firmly in place, those at the ceremony yesterday expressed mixed feelings.

"It's bittersweet," said Kathy Fotheringham, a spokeswoman for the post. "It's gorgeous out here. It's a country club setting."

Fotheringham, who has been at Fort Ritchie for eight years, said the personnel on the post have always felt very connected to Cascade through the decades.

"The base was the first place where [Army personnel] were trained in central intelligence" during World War II, Fotheringham said. "So there were spies here and everyone in town knew, but nobody talked about it. It was a secret and it drew people closer."

The post, which was completed in 1927, initially was named Camp Albert C. Ritchie, after the Maryland governor. It first housed the National Guard and then was turned over to the Army in 1942.

Most of its personnel has been or will be transferred to Fort Detrick in Frederick; Fort Huachuca, Ariz.; or Letterkenny Army Depot, Pa., Fotheringham said.

She said Fort Ritchie has always been small -- never having more than 3,000 personnel on post -- compared with most posts, which have staffs that number between 10,000 to 50,000.

For Sgt. Douglas Howard, 35, the small size is one reason he's sad to leave Fort Ritchie, where he has been for four years.

"You have personal relationships here," said Howard, who described the mountainous area as "an oasis." "At some bases, it's so big that you're just a number because there are so many soldiers."

As the festivities took place on post, others chose to say goodbye in a different way.

Perched on a bar stool at the Chocolate Park Tavern across the street from Fort Ritchie yesterday afternoon, 47-year-old Ed Hughes said he didn't plan to attend the ceremonies and was trying to avoid discussing its closure.

Hughes said he fell in love with and settled in the area when he was stationed at Fort Ritchie from 1990 to 1992, when he retired.

"In the Army, there are just some posts that are called 'best-kept secrets,' " Hughes said. "And to me, this was one of them."

Pub Date: 7/18/98

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