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Fort Ritchie academy plan was once rejected

March 16, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

CASCADE - An organization that plans to create an academy for high school dropouts at Fort Ritchie approached local officials about the idea in 1996, but officials in charge of the redevelopment of the former Army base examined the proposal and promptly rejected it.

"They didn't have a plan at that time that fit with what we wanted to do," said Robert P. Sweeney, who at the time was executive director of the Local Redevelopment Authority.

Sweeney said that the Authority, the predecessor of the PenMar Development Corp., had concentrated on "job generation and not tying up large segments of the property."

Sweeney, who left as executive director of PenMar in February 1999, declined to comment on the lease that Role Models America Inc. has signed with PenMar. He said he does not know the group's current plan.

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He said officials had different concerns four years ago. Role Models, which had a different name then, did not have a business plan or a funding source, he said.

Those problems appear to have been solved. Congress has authorized funding for the plan, and the organization has a $10 million budget, according the group's founder and president.

The initial response to the proposal raises questions about whether PenMar has abandoned its original vision of creating 2,000 high-tech jobs to replace those lost by the closure of the base in northeast Washington County.

James A. LaFleur, PenMar's current executive director, insisted the plan has not changed.

"It fits the reuse plan," he said. "What is high-tech? High-tech is not an industry."

LaFleur said the 175 jobs that the school will create will be high-quality jobs.

From the beginning, officials planned to develop educational and training programs, he said.

LaFleur said part of the base that Role Models intends to use, including barracks, a dining hall and classroom buildings, can be used for little else.

"It's what we've always been marketing as an educational component," he said. " It's a perfect fit."

Sweeney said the original concept for education and training facilities did not include high school programs.

"The training and education programs was looking at technical training, business training," he said.

Some nearby residents remained unconvinced by LaFleur's assurances that redevelopment remains on track.

"There's nothing high-tech about it. It's basically a high school," said Cascade resident Dave Churnesky.

"It really is nothing like the reuse plan that he promised when he talked constantly about high-tech development," said George Drastal, a vocal critic of PenMar.

Former Washington County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers, who was on the Local Redevelopment Authority's board in 1996, said he agreed at the time that the Role Models program did not mesh with the Authority's goals.

But he said other issues have changed. The Army has restricted roughly half of the base from development with its requirement that ammunition, shells and other "unexploded ordnance" be dug up and removed. The $10 million cleanup could take years.

"At the time, you had a greater opportunity to look for business, industrial-type clients," Bowers said. "Now you have something totally different."

County Commissioner William J. Wivell, who is on PenMar's board, said PenMar's redevelopment plan may need to be revised. He said its future will be determined, in part, by the school's success.

"Whether it's a temporary or a permanent solution, at this point, we really don't know," he said.

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