Mixed message on viability of Pen Mar

July 29, 1999

Four years ago, members of the Fort Ritchie Reuse Committee sat around brainstorming and speculated that the soon-to-be abandoned Army base could become a stock-car race track, a privately owned resort or even a gambling casino. Richard Palmer, then Washington County's economic development director, said while the state and federal governments would get first crack at the property, local folks would be first in line after that.

"We're probably looking at a six-to-seven-month process," Palmer said.

That was in July of 1995, before the PenMar Development Corp. became aware that that as much as half of the base's 638 acres might be contaminated with "unexploded ordnance," or UXO.

The obstacles facing the redevelopment authority are so great, according to William M. Spigler, the base transition coordinator, that it substantial progress may be years away.

Spigler, who spoke to the Longmeadow Rotary Club this week, painted a bleak picture of the prospects for redevelopment there.


When the first plan for the property was drawn up, Spigler said, it proposed a high-tech job center that would replace the 2,000 or so jobs that made the base the county's largest employer. On June 30, PenMar submitted a new application that lowered the number of potential jobs and took out the high-tech component.

Building employment back to what Fort Ritchie once had will probably take at least 20 years, Spigler said, in part because PenMar officials are insisting that they must either own the property or guarantee tenants long leases - 50 years or more.

Spigler, the Army's representative on site, said if PenMar came in with a viable tenant seeking a short-term lease for a property outside the UXO area, the Army would probably give it favorable consideration.

Even considering all the issues to be faced, Spigler said negotiations haven't gone well. He said an Army Corps of Engineers representative told him he'd never seen two groups with the same objective - the transfer of the base - make less progress toward their goal.

Even after the clean-up on ordnance is completed - which may not be until 2001 - there's no guarantee that what's left afterward will be anything more than a muddy pit, Spigler said. And Spigler said, the Army may decide the clean-up will require excavations under some of the base's more modern buildings, facilities PenMar was counting on to draw tenants.

Given all you've said, I asked Spigler, is this project a money pit that will cost taxpayers much more than it will ever yield?

"It's unproven" whether that's the case, he said, but the picture he painted was not a hopeful one.

Ronald Bowers, the former county commissioner who served on the PenMar board until recently, said he did not share Spigler's pessimistic view. Somewhere along the way, Bowers said, a "major rift" had developed between Spigler and the PenMar board.

"It's still a very viable project. I don't share Spigler's assessment," Bowers said.

The pessimistic talk also surprised Steve Hull, volunteer president of PenMar's board. Hull said he knew of no rift between Spigler and the board. However, Hull said he had noticed that Spigler sometimes tends to give a "worst-case scenario" of the matter under discussion.

As to the criticism of the PenMar's leasing procedure, Hull said it only makes sense that a company that's going to invest a lot of money in updating buildings would want a lease that at least covered the useful life of the improvements they paid for.

As to Spigler's comments about the possibility that the UXO recovery plan might require some excavation of buildings, Hull said that it seemed "ludicrous to me that the clean-up could include demolition of buildings that have been sitting there for years."

James LaFleur, PenMar's executive director, also said he was surprised, noting that the organization's revised application is due for a hearing before the Assistant Secretary of the Army next month.

Work is proceeding so well, LaFleur said, that PenMar is working on the memorandum of agreement for the transfer of the real estate.

How well Pen Mar's application will be received will be known "probably next week," according to Tom Low, of the federal Office of Economic Adjustment.

Low acknowledged that the UXO designation had delayed the project, but said the Army is "certainly not going to dig up the place and leave it like a strip mine."

Low gave the PenMar board credit for what he said was a good effort to sell what is a difficult site, located far from major highways.

"They're looking for good tenants that will bring jobs," he said.

And though next year's funding will begin the process of phasing out federal support, Low said "I feel they're going to be self-sufficient by that time."

Is Spigler's assessment just as Hull said, part of the base transition coordinator's tendency to look at the worst-case scenario, or something else? As Spigler told the Rotarians, it's really your project and it would make sense to pay attention to what's going on.

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

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