Fort Ritchies eyes future as business park

September 28, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

This Thursday brings an end to Fort Ritchie's 47-year history as a U.S. Army base and officially marks its transformation into the Lakeside Corporate Center at PenMar.

The 638-acre base, nestled in the mountains of northeast Washington County, is starting a new life as a high technology business park and corporate training center.

PenMar Development Corporation's 20-year plan calls for the former military communications facility, now quiet and mostly empty, to employ more than 2,000 people when fully developed. Supporters envision a bustling campus of telecommunications companies, biotechnology firms and federal government contractors.

"I think it's going to be a real nice facility up there," said County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook.

Robert Sweeney, executive director of the PenMar Development Corporation, the nonprofit private-public agency managing the fort's redevelopment, said, "I just think it's a golden opportunity for Washington County and Western Maryland."


Sweeney said at stake are not only the main goals of creating jobs and increasing the county's tax base, but also the ability of the county to offer the kinds of high-tech employers that people now often have to look to the Interstate 270 corridor to find.

"We're trying to create the jobs for the next generation of kids," he said.

A major step in that direction took place in April, when PenMar signed an agreement with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. that has the Wall Street powerhouse studying the economic viability of the fort's future.

A report from Morgan Stanley will likely be completed in the middle of next month, Sweeney said. If initial research shows Morgan Stanley that redevelopment is feasible, PenMar will negotiate a long-term agreement with the company to attract businesses to the development.

Morgan Stanley officials did not return phone calls last week, but Sweeney said he is encouraged by what he has been hearing from the company.

"Everything we've gotten back is very positive," he said.

At its peak, Fort Ritchie housed about 1,700 civilians and 1,700 military personnel and their families. But the total was down to less than 1,000 by this July and has been falling off rapidly ever since, as base personnel move to other Army installations.

Though PenMar is leasing the base, it needs to negotiate agreements to purchase the land - a process that could take several years, given the reams of government red tape that must be cleared before all of the land is officially transferred.

"There are about a million questions and a half million answers," Sweeney said.

He is hoping to negotiate a sale from the Army at no cost, or close to it.

"I like to say as a taxpayer, I paid for it once and I don't want to pay for it again," he said.

Waiting for the sale doesn't mean PenMar is not pushing ahead with redevelopment plans. It already has one tenant, the International Masonry Institute, which offers professional masonry training and has about 20 employees on the base.

Sweeney said a planned expansion with the institute will have as many as 300 people working within a couple years.

PenMar is also in discussions with other firms considering the location, but Sweeney said he could not divulge their names.

"We're talking with a lot of people. We're dealing with a lot of issues," he said.

But even supporters of the plan acknowledge that PenMar's biggest drawback is its location. While the mountains make for a picturesque setting for a business, the lack of a nearby major highway could cause transportation problems, especially in bad weather for businesses that would need to regularly haul materials on and off the business park.

"The good news is the location. The bad news is the location," Sweeney said.

Snook said the location is a driving force behind seeking telecommunications firms and other companies that use fiber-optic cable instead of asphalt to transport their wares.

"That's why we're not looking so much at companies that will need special transportation issues," he said.

Sweeney said whatever becomes of the work with Morgan Stanley and the efforts to attract businesses, PenMar cannot lose sight of the original goals of creating jobs and building the tax base.

"We've got to make sure that what we do does not deviate from those objectives we set at the beginning and stuck to all along," Sweeney said.

How soon and how fast the growth takes place at PenMar depends on many factors, including the pace of the local and national economy, Sweeney said.

"We're on a fast track, and we're going to keep on a fast track," he said.

Snook said the county isn't expecting any miracles immediately.

"We knew going into this that it would be a long process," he said.

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