Fort transition plan not yet set in stone

Explosives: Though hoping to let a masonry school and businesses take over, the Army must deal with leftover shells.

May 24, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

CASCADE -- Only a few geese and ducks strut across the parade ground at Fort Ritchie these days.

The picturesque former Army base, where spies trained during World War II, closed in September, leaving a hole in the life of this small Washington County town near the Pennsylvania border. The tennis courts, bowling alley and golf course are empty, as are most of the stone and frame buildings.

Now, locals and the Pentagon are forming battle lines over the fate of the 638-acre installation in a valley between the Blue Ridge and Catoctin mountains.

The county-sponsored PenMar Development Corp. wants to turn Fort Ritchie into a campus-like business park, a facility for high-paying technology jobs to replace the 2,400 military and civilian personnel who once lived and worked here.

But Ritchie's reincarnation as "Lakeside Corporate Center at PenMar" has been complicated by potentially deadly debris left behind when the soldiers cleared out: thousands of mortar rounds, bazooka rockets and other munitions fired on the grounds since the post opened in 1927 as a training camp for the Maryland National Guard.

The Army recently reported that as much as half the base might harbor unexploded ordnance, on the surface or underground. It has proposed clearing the land of potential hazards by 2001.

But until then, those areas once used as firing ranges are off-limits to civilian use. That includes most of the base housing, several recreational facilities and a recently constructed PX building.

"It defies logic," grumbles James A. LaFleur, PenMar's executive director and Ritchie's last post commander. "Up until the 30th of September, it was occupied. Families lived there."

The Army has said it could transfer ownership of the base to PenMar as early as April, with use restricted on the areas containing possible explosives until they have been cleared. But LaFleur says PenMar can't wait that long.

"We've got prospects sitting here that want to do new construction," he says, "and the only way you can do that is if you've got title or a long-term lease." PenMar wants title to the base by July 1, LaFleur says, and an agreement with the Army to adjust its schedule for clearing the property of unexploded ordnance as redevelopment needs arise.

The company has one commercial tenant, the International Masonry Institute, which trains craftsmen in bricklaying, stonecutting and related skills.

Novices and experienced workers from as far as Alaska attend the institute, which is funded jointly by labor and management, for 12-week courses. Their classroom is the fort's largest and newest warehouse, and they stay in base housing -- deemed free of potential explosives.

The institute, the training arm of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, hopes to expand its capacity from 75 to 250 trainees. The union also plans to move its headquarters and pension fund offices from Washington with about 200 jobs, to a multibuilding complex it wants to build on a 26-acre corner of the old fort.

"We're ready as soon as we can get the property," said Ed Bellucci Jr., deputy director of the national training center.

LaFleur says that many other businesses have shown interest in the fort, which since World War II served as a communications base. PenMar hopes the fort's country club look and its high-tech infrastructure -- it is wired with 26 miles of fiber optic cable -- will prove attractive to companies in the telecommunications industry, in electronic commerce and in corporate training.

Pentagon officials say they're willing to work with PenMar to transfer the base as quickly and smoothly as possible, but the process takes time.

"Nothing's fast in the Army," acknowledges Bill Spigler, the Ritchie base transition coordinator for the Defense Department. "It's a huge process, and it's frustrating for all parties."

Maj. Webster "Hank" Procter, the Army's point man for the transfer, says he is waiting for PenMar to resubmit its development plan. The Army must review and approve that before a sale or transfer can be negotiated.

"We don't want them to fail," Procter says, adding that Army officials are looking for ways to handle the unexploded ordnance more expeditiously as well.

PenMar submitted a development plan last year, but has had to revise it because of concerns about the unexploded ordnance, LaFleur says. Plans to demolish World War II-era frame housing in the old firing range and build homes there have been scrapped, out of fear they may be unmarketable. The company wants to put commercial development there.

LaFleur, who spent 20 years with the Army, grumbles about its red tape. He notes that he closed Fort Ritchie in three years, half the time the military originally designated for the shutdown.

"Economic development is tough enough anyway, without having to go through this bureaucratic process," he says.

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