Business park dreams, but problematic reality

Fort Ritchie: Five years of setbacks have some wondering whether plans for the former Army site in Western Maryland are off base.

February 02, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

CASCADE - When the Army cleared out of Fort Ritchie in 1998, local officials envisioned a high-tech business park springing up in its place and restoring hundreds of well-paying jobs to these remote mountains in Western Maryland.

But six years later, the former base looks much as it did when the soldiers left: a ghost town of darkened buildings, rutted roads and drooping weeds.

To be sure, base closures are never tidy. Environmental ills, complex regulations and quarrels among developers, local officials and the military often combine to stall their rebirth.

But the effort to turn Fort Ritchie into "Lakeside Corporate Center" has weathered what officials say is a remarkable streak of misfortune: an unexpected courtroom defeat last year, a surprise discovery of buried explosives near homes, and a clash among Maryland Congress members that has the base's only big tenant threatening to leave.

Then, this fall, when things looked like they couldn't get any worse, nearly half the board overseeing the redevelopment effort abruptly resigned.

"It's been a painful year in a lot of ways," says Richard Rook, executive director of PenMar Development Corp., chartered by the General Assembly in 1997 to redevelop the base.

PenMar itself has taken a beating in the newspapers around here. Critics have accused it of timidity, lackadaisical marketing and a tendency to get mired in parochial power struggles.

One Washington County official recently suggested scuttling PenMar and returning the base - which he called a "monster that's becoming uncontrollable" - to the federal government.

PenMar officials concede they have little to show for the last six years. But they insist they are nearing a breakthrough.

They say that the mass defections from its board have made way for new leaders with fresh ideas. They say they are sharpening their sales pitch to prospective tenants. And they say they are close to striking a deal with a major developer.

PenMar is also retreating from what one of its leaders calls its "mantra": a refusal to repair the ailing roads, phone system and power lines until the Army finishes its environmental cleanup and hands over the entire 592-acre base.

"We need to be thinking of doing something different," says the official, Ronald Z. Sulchek, the board chairman since November.

Rental income has swollen PenMar's cash assets to $4 million. Sulchek says PenMar should have spent it long ago to shore up infrastructure and make the grounds more inviting to would-be tenants.

But others, while applauding PenMar's new direction, are skeptical about prospects for the base's rebirth. They worry that this tiny village, in the Catoctin Mountains hard by the Appalachian Trail and the Pennsylvania state line, is simply too far from the interstates to draw a real replacement for the Army. Cascade has a hard enough time as it is, they say, getting the ear of political leaders in the county seat.

"Some of us have a saying up here: `So close to God, but so far from Hagerstown,'" says Karl H. Weissenbach, head of the Cascade Committee, a neighborhood group that fought plans to shut the local elementary school after the base closure. "There is a perception of benign neglect."

Fort Ritchie opened in 1926 as a training camp for the Maryland National Guard, taking its name from then-Gov. Albert C. Ritchie. The Army took over during World War II and trained thousands of soldiers in counter-intelligence. The base later evolved into a high-tech communications post.

It was the economic heart of Cascade, a one-time summer retreat for the rich 75 miles northwest of Baltimore that now has a mostly blue-collar population of 1,400.

In 1995, the Department of Defense put Fort Ritchie on a list of bases that had outlived their usefulness. Three years later, 1,200 Army employees left town. Officials estimated that 33 businesses in and around Cascade suffered, shedding half of their 700 workers.

Then the power struggles started.

Army officials say they were ready - eager, even - to give Fort Ritchie to PenMar as early as 1998. But Washington County commissioners, who appoint PenMar's board, wanted the Army to finish its cleanup first.

"Their stated goal was not to take on any Army liability," recalls William M. Spigler, the Army's transition coordinator for the base. "They had fears. They were timid."

PenMar officials, for their part, say the Army has dragged its feet on the cleanup.

The national round of base closures that included Fort Ritchie freed 135,123 acres of Army land for reuse. About 91 percent is now in new hands, either through long-term leases or sale, according to the Pentagon.

"PenMar still does not own one parcel of land here," says Rook. It leases just a sliver.

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