State Department training facility could be headed for Pennsylvania

Proposed security center was pulled from Eastern Shore after residents balked

September 22, 2010|By Paul West, The Baltimore Sun

A proposed State Department security training center, planned for Maryland's Eastern Shore until local residents objected, could wind up in Pennsylvania instead.

Gina Gilliam, a spokeswoman for the federal government's real estate arm, confirmed that officials from Washington traveled to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., recently and met with a local congressman about the proposed facility.

Rep. Paul Kanjorski toured a site in his district with members of the State Department and General Services Administration team overseeing the long-sought project. Afterward, the Eastern Pennsylvania Democrat spoke with local business leaders about the project and held a news conference.

His message: The proposed facility to train diplomats in antiterrorism tactics could bring hundreds of jobs to his district. That was the same theme Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski sounded after the November 2009 announcement that the tiny crossroads town of Ruthsburg, in Queen Anne's County, had been chosen as the preferred site.

"The training facility is good news for three reasons: jobs, jobs and more jobs for Maryland," she said at the time. But after months of debate — including public hearings at which residents aired their worries about noise, traffic congestion and possible environmental damage — it became clear that quality-of-life issues were more important to Shore residents than jobs. In June, the feds folded their hand and started over.

Gilliam, the General Services Administration spokeswoman, said no announcement has been scheduled about a new site choice, and Kanjorski told reporters that other locations were under consideration. Gilliam did confirm that $70 million in federal stimulus funds earmarked for the project would have to be obligated soon or the money would go back to the Treasury unspent.

The Pennsylvania site is on several thousand acres of strip-mined former coal land owned by the Earth Conservancy in Luzerne County. It is located on the opposite bank of the Susquehanna River from the town of Shickshinny (pop. 896).

In an echo of the Eastern Shore fight, questions are already being raised about the presence of threatened and endangered species at the Pennsylvania location. The site is more than 200 miles from Washington, beyond the outside limit — 150 miles from the U.S. Capitol — set by the federal government in its original specifications.

Local news media coverage of the proposal has noted that Kanjorski, an endangered incumbent, has a history of announcing projects that failed to materialize. He has acknowledged that the development is not a "done deal." And his Republican opponent has raised questions about the idea, including the same noise factor — from exploding bombs and gunfire — that helped turn Marylanders off.

It is unclear whether any Maryland sites remain under active consideration for the project. However, no potential locations have been publicized, other than the one in Pennsylvania, giving the latest reports the look of a trial balloon — something the feds failed to float in their effort to put the project in Maryland

The campus-like facility would contain classrooms and housing, along with a mock urban center, shooting ranges, a bomb explosion pit and high-speed tracks for teaching evasive-driving maneuvers. The State Department, which has been trying for years to get the center built, has said it would allow the government to update its security training and save money by consolidating activities currently conducted at 19 sites around the country.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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