Ex-fort's neighbors optimistic, but puzzled

November 30, 1999|By JENNIFER FITCH

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The issue: The U.S. Army closed Fort Ritchie in 1998, but the former base is in the midst of redevelopment. Plans include a mix of housing, offices, secure government space, athletic fields, a museum and a community center.

What's new: Last month, developer Corporate Office Properties Trust and nonprofit PenMar Development Corp. launched the refurbishment of a $4.4 million community center. Hagerstown Community College has announced it will open a branch at the former base by March 2008.

What's next: The developer has obtained 500 acres at the base and is awaiting approval of the transfer of 91 more acres.

BLUE RIDGE SUMMIT, PA. - Residents of the communities around Fort Ritchie are generally optimistic about the redevelopment of the former U.S. Army base, although many are unsure of what actually is happening there.


"I don't know what the plans are," Deborah Heinecker said.

The 15-year mountaintop resident expressed frustration with closed-door meetings between PenMar Development Corp. and Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) of Columbia, Md.

"People in the community want to know what's going on," Heinecker said.

On Sept. 24, representatives of COPT and the nonprofit PenMar Development Corp. hosted a ceremony for the $4.4 million refurbishment of a community center promised to be open by July 4, 2008.

Other plans include 673 homes, 1.7 million square feet of offices, a history museum and athletic fields.

"Everybody is more excited about the (Fourth of July) fireworks coming back than anything else," said Megan Warner, owner of A Lily Pad Flowers and Gifts in Blue Ridge Summit.

Warner said she would welcome some healthy competition from small businesses on the former base as well as more patrons in her store.

"I'm kind of doing the 'wait and see,'" she said. "It sounded good, looked good."

A couple of people expressed concerns about youths that could be living in the apartments, condominiums, town houses and single-family houses planned on the former base.

Mary Rockwell of Cascade said she hopes things are available for both young people and older residents to do.

Jessica Miller, who lives on the Pennsylvania/Maryland state line, shared regret that buildings she considered beautiful ? such as the movie theater ? already have been torn down. She hopes others are saved.

"They could open up all those things for the kids up here instead of (them) getting into drugs," Miller said.

Her neighbor, Bob Wetzel, is hopeful the 10- to 15-year plan will be fulfilled.

"I hope to see people moving in there," Wetzel said. "I hate to see it sit empty."

"I think it'll happen because the people that bought it, they're really serious people," he said.

A concern for people living and working around the former base is the redevelopment's impact on their infrastructure and emergency services.

"I'm not enthused about having more traffic," Rockwell said. "We're going to need more police and fire protection."

John VanDerCruyssen, a 40-year resident of the area, said he hopes the redevelopment efforts include a traffic study.

"One of the major deals up here is a traffic light at Tracey's Corner and (Pa.) 16," he said.

VanDerCruyssen views the redevelopment as a boon to the surrounding communities.

"Fort Ritchie was a thriving place, and it also drove the economy up here," he said.

"I'm really skeptical whether the locals will get any good jobs. ... We need to make sure the community center is for the locals, not just the people on Fort Ritchie," Heinecker said.

Charles Tabor of Fountain Dale, Pa., hasn't heard much about the redevelopment.

"What they do doesn't bother me one way or another," he said.

"I care quite a bit about what happens with it," Lorraine Hays said.

In 1947, she both began her nursing career and met her husband at the base. Now, Hays hopes the base is redeveloped in a way that brings jobs while preserving history.

"I know it can never come back to what it was," Hays said. "I just hope they don't take our history from us."

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