Years after Fort Ritchie opened for redevelopment, base remains shuttered

August 08, 2014|By Natalie Sherman, The Baltimore Sun

The redevelopment of a former Army post in the Blue Ridge Mountains might not appear to have much in common with the renovation of the historic Hippodrome Theatre on Baltimore's west side.

Spanning roughly 600 acres in Western Maryland's Washington County, Fort Ritchie envelops two small lakes and is speckled with spruce trees and gray stone buildings dating to the 1920s. It's hardly a theater in a gritty part of downtown.

But like the Hippodrome, the installation presents a daunting set of questions — multiple stakeholders with competing interests, historic considerations, a difficult location. Redevelopment also represents the area's best shot to recover the jobs and sense of community lost when the base closed in 1998.

"It's at least as big a challenge," said Robert Boras, a former project manager for the Hippodrome. PenMar Development Corp., a quasi-public agency established by the state in 1997 to find new uses for Fort Ritchie, hired Boras in March to inject new life into those efforts.

PenMar took back ownership of the site from a private developer in 2012, after previous efforts stalled in the face of lawsuits, disagreement over potential occupants and the economic downturn. A recent consultant's report on the property found that market potential for most real estate uses there "barely exists."

With the economy recovering, hopes have turned to the idea of data centers or perhaps a retirement community. Others have proposed, not entirely in jest, bottling the property's spring water.

But there is a lot of ground to make up. The 1998 closure removed an estimated 1,700 jobs from the community near the Pennsylvania state line north of Frederick. Recently constructed buildings languished. A movie theater, golf course and bowling alley shut down. In 2010, the census found that Highfield-Cascade had about 1,100 residents. Fewer than 400 — about half the population over the age of 16 — were employed.

"Most of the people I've talked to have said the same thing: 'We need something and we need it soon,' " said Buck Browning, executive director of the Fort Ritchie Community Center. "That's always tempered with, 'We need what's right.' "

Fort Ritchie is remote, about 90 minutes from Baltimore, down highways and up windy mountain roads that cross nearly unmarked train tracks still used for freight transport. The National Guard set up camp there in 1926, taking land formerly occupied by an ice company. Spies trained at the fort during World War II, and Agent Orange testing later occurred on the site.

The grounds lie between the Camp David presidential retreat and "Site R" — a granite bunker hollowed out of Pennsylvania's Raven Rock mountain and considered the "underground Pentagon." That complex is the "secure, undisclosed location" where former Vice President Dick Cheney retreated after 9/11.

In the region's heyday more than a century ago, nearby towns, including Highfield-Cascade and Blue Ridge Summit in Pennsylvania, served as summertime retreats, dotted with hundreds of wooden boarding houses for weekend visitors who took the train from Washington and Baltimore. The nearby Appalachian Trail and Camp Louise, a girls' sleepaway camp founded in 1922, continue the rustic tradition.

The location, once an advantage, makes redevelopment difficult today.

"You take something like Fort Ritchie, which has a rich history and a lot of people care about it, but when you take a cold, hard look, it is remote, it is rocky and hilly in some places," said Ruth Anne Callaham, a county commissioner who is on the PenMar board and worked on the base for 13 years. "We're trying to swim upstream."

The Army spent nearly a decade cleaning up the base, removing bazooka rockets, mortar rounds and other waste, before transferring it to PenMar in 2006. PenMar immediately sold the base to Columbia-based Corporate Office Properties Trust.

COPT proposed a $300 million transformation of the site with 673 residences and 1.7 million square feet of offices for national security-related firms, creating as many as 4,500 jobs. It invested a reported $28 million, clearing some homes and installing a new electricity substation to power major data centers.

In 2012, after a court ordered further environmental review of the property and the CEO who pushed the project retired, COPT wrote off the investment. It paid PenMar $2 million to clear its debt and returned the property to the agency.

PenMar hired consultants from the Counselors of Real Estate to outline options for the site. The group's report last October found little demand for such property and concluded that COPT's plan for the area was "almost certainly overly ambitious." The report recommended looking at data centers or retirement communities, among other uses.

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