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PenMar must be more inclusive of neighbors

May 06, 1999

If you've wondered why more hasn't happened at Fort Ritchie in the five years since the Army decided to close it, there are two reasons. The Army hasn't actually turned over the property yet and almost half the base hasn't been cleared of UXO -unexploded ordnance - artillery shells, hand grenades and the like.

Those facts came out in a briefing held at the base this past Tuesday by the PenMar Development Corp., the quasi-public Washington County group set up to market the property. It wasn't the good news that everyone wanted to hear, but it was a good effort at communication by a group that so far has handled its public relations about as well as the Baltimore Orioles have played baseball this spring.

James A. LaFleur, PenMar's executive director, said that Ritchie's redevelopment is stalled - in contrast to what's happening at the former Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, Pa, - because the Letterkenny property was given to the redevelopment authority there under a "rural conveyance," something that can't be done at Fort Ritchie.

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At this point, the Army is proposing a turnover of property in April of 2000, while PenMar wants it to happen in July of this year. PenMar officials also said they want some flexibility in the ordnance disposal so that if a prospect expresses interest in a parcel, clean-up of that area can be made a priority.

How much of the base needs to undergo a clean-up?

About half, PenMar officials said, adding that UXO areas include the bowling alley, child-development center and much of the base housing, which means it's impossible to lease any of that property now.

What can be done to move the process along?

U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes is pushing the Army to agree, and to acknowledge that their designation of an UXO area is going to seriously affect redevelopment of the site.

Sarbanes, who brought in the International Masonry Institute, the largest prospect so far to publicly commit to the base, is said to be frustrated by the Army inaction preventing IMI from beginning a $40 million construction project there.

How long might a clean-up of the UXO problem take?

PenMar officials said the Army's timetable runs into 2001.

What sort of jobs is PenMar proposing for the site?

Telecommunications, electronic commerce, corporate training and recreational facilities management, among others.

What about former workers who don't have the skills needed to work in high-tech industries?

Just as on an Army base, there'll be a mix of skills needed by the industries that come in, LaFleur said.

Why can't residents of the community walk around the base for exercise, as they used to do?

The Army has only six people on site, and the sheriff's department has only been contracted for 36 hours a week of patrol time. Army officials fear a possible increase in vandalism or accidents, but are going to try to work out a system to allow residents on the post again.

Whatever happened to the Morgan Stanley-Dean Witter study on prospective uses for the site, and does the consultant agree with PenMar's high-tech targets?

PenMar officials say they're still talking to the consultant about the final report, but said that the consultant agrees with their proposed uses.

Did the county make any serious attempt to interest the University of Maryland in the site for its new campus?

Wayne Alter and William Reuter, members of PenMar's board, said the UM officials had looked at the site, but wanted interstate access and proximity to the area's population center.

Those were the major topics of discussion, although there were a slew of other questions dealing with problems experienced by some of those living in the 68 residential units now being leased out.

Some said they were promised when they moved in that they'd have access to base facilities like the pool and the bowling alley. Others said law enforcement on the base was inconsistent.

One woman asked whether it was possible if PenMar officials could help bring the on-base residents together as a community, perhaps by publishing as newsletter. She was told she could get news of happenings on base by accessing the new web site at www.lakesideatpenmar.com.

LaFleur's fairly new in the job, so let's give him a break, but it seems as if PenMar has overlooked the positive difference that a good relationship with the surrounding community could make in the redevelopment effort.

These people are potential employees, but just as important, they would also be neighbors to the new companies' officials.

Giving them some part to play in the process and telling them as much as possible without breaching industrial clients' confidentiality couldn't hurt, and might help a great deal. Yes, there were plenty of complaints heard on Tuesday, but many also offered to help. It would be a shame if PenMar failed to enlist some of these would-be volunteers.




Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page

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