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Role Models wants to buy Fort Ritchie

June 06, 2000|By SCOTT BUTKI

A nonprofit group that plans to establish a military-type academy for high school dropouts at Fort Ritchie said Tuesday it wants to buy the former Army base.

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Role Models America Academy made the announcement at a Tuesday meeting of the Washington County Commissioners, who oversee development of the 638-acre site near Cascade.

Role Models America says it is receiving $50 million in government funds to open a military-type school on the former Fort Ritchie grounds.

Max Andrews, Role Model vice president of operations and development, said the organization would use private money to take out a 50-year mortgage on the 638-acre property.

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He said he did not know what the cost would be but said it would be more than the $2.5 million the U.S. Army paid for the land in the 1950s.

Andrews did not identify where the money would come from to buy the property.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said he likes the idea of Role Models buying the land, provided it doesn't interfere with plans for the academy.

"That would be great," Snook said. "If things progress, with the plans they have in place, I think it would be ideal for them to take the base," which closed in 1998.

James A. LaFleur, executive director of PenMar Development Corp., which is charged with redeveloping the base, said he knew little about the plan. "The board will listen to what they have to say and go from there."

PenMar officials and the County Commissioners were told of the plans Tuesday during a closed meeting.

Purchasing the base instead of leasing a portion of it as had been planned would give Role Models a firmer base for planning for the future, Andrews said.

Role Models expects to receive $10 million a year for the next five years through the U.S. Department of Labor, Andrews said.

An Associated Press story said Labor Department spokesman David Stewart said he was unaware of such a grant.

The college preparatory school for high school dropouts without criminal records is scheduled to open in the fall, Andrews said.

If Role Models buys the land, its officials plan to invite other businesses and organizations to join them there, and to leave some land as wilderness areas, Andrews said.

Two businesses that could move there are Colorado-based Echostar, a distance learning program company, and Alexandria, Va.-based Jewell Industries Inc., a Department of Defense contractor that uses scanning technology and digital document conversion, Andrews said.

Those companies previously approached PenMar about locating at the base but were rejected by Executive Director James LaFleur, Andrews said.

Role Models has asked why LaFleur rejected those offers without notifying the PenMar board of directors but has not received an answer, Andrews said.

LaFleur has invited representatives of Role Models to PenMar's monthly board meeting Monday morning. A representative of Jewell probably also will attend, Andrews said.

LaFleur said he couldn't comment on Andrews' remarks. Board members Malcolm Davis and Wayne Alter attended the meeting but said it would be inappropriate for them to comment.

Role Models has said it would need about 45 acres of the 638-acre base for the academy and academy-related projects, such as a printing facility. The organization plans to use the site as its national headquarters.

Academy students will be high school dropouts without criminal records who have demonstrated that they have the aptitude and potential to finish high school and enter college, Role Models President Robert Alexander has said.

If Role Models buys the property it would inherit some of PenMar's difficulties, including environmental cleanup negotiations, he said. Unexploded mortar shells and grenades, remnants of the Maryland National Guard's pre-1926 use, might be buried on half the property.

Some of those problems will be resolved over time as the Army does the clean-up work, he said.

Using the former Army bases, 36 buildings and dining facilities and other structures, the school would establish an education complex with three dormitories, a chapel, gymnasium, theater and classrooms, he said. The students will live on the campus year-round.

The curriculum will include mandatory vocational classes in information technology at the school through a dual enrollment program with Hagerstown Community College.

Alexander previously said each of the 435 U.S. representatives and 100 senators would appoint one student to the academy.

On Tuesday Alexander told the commissioners American Legion members around the country, one from each congressional district, would help the Congress members select the students.

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