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At last, progress being made in community, PenMar relations

September 30, 2002

To the editor:


Several months ago we began to make verbal and written inquiries to PenMar Development Corporation (PMDC) in an effort to better understand PMDC's current redevelopment plans at Fort Ritchie. Our initial inquiries were narrowly aimed at trying to understand how, when and why PMDC had decided to demolish, rather than donate, the Fort Ritchie gymnasium and theater.

These efforts culminated with PMDC taking two recent actions, as described below, that could have a positive impact on future developments at Fort Ritchie.

Both the gymnasium and theater were included in a potential building donation program described in a publicly available 1997 document entitled "Fort Ritchie Comprehensive Redevelopment Plan, " and both buildings are of known interest to Fort Ritchie-area citizens and organizations for potential use as community facilities.

But our inquiries revealed that a 1999 PMDC document, entitled "Business Plan and Application for Economic Development Conveyance," called for the the buildings to be demolished, not donated. Because the plans had obviously changed, and because the 1999 document had not been made available to the public, we asked PMDC for a copy of it and other public records, such as PMDC's board meeting minutes and annual reports.

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PMDC refused our requests despite the fact it is a "public instrumentality" of the State and Maryland and subject to the provisions of the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA). The purpose of the PIA is to give the general public "access to information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees," and it provides that citizens may have copies of public records or access to the public records to make copies

Although PMDC finally agreed on Sept. 5 to furnish the documents requested (for a fee of $82!), the entire experience was like trying to get blood out of a turnip, and we did not want to repeat it when seeking additional public records from PMDC in the future.

Our inquiries also revealed the decision to demolish the buildings was apparently made without public notice, input or concurrence despite the fact that, as the official DOD-recognized Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) for Fort Ritchie, PMDC is supposed to serve as the community's point of contact for all matters relating to base closure, be representative of the impacted community, allow for maximum public input in its deliberations to reach a consensus on base reuse, and keep the public informed and solicit its input in all phases of the redevelopment program.

These LRA obligations are line-item entries in a Department of Defense publication entitled "Community Guide to Base Reuse." As such, we believed it was improper for PMDC to decide to demolish the gymnasium and theater without notifying the public or seeking its input.

We raised both of these issues with PMDC at its Sept. 9 board meeting. Specifically, we asked that PMDC place all of its existing and future public records on display at the Blue Ridge Summit (BRS) library to ensure they will be accessible to the public, and we asked that PMDC open the Fort Ritchie gymnasium for use by local citizens and Smithsburg-area sports teams beginning this fall.

To its credit, the PMDC board subsequently agreed to do two things. First, it agreed to forward all of its existing and future public records to the BRS library as they become available for public access. That should ensure that no other citizens will have to spend the time, energy and money we have spent over the past six months trying to obtain public access to PMDC's public records.

Second, PMDC agreed to ask Washington County officials to inspect the gymnasium to see what is needed to bring it up to code and determine how much those fixes will cost. That inspection took place on Sept. 16.

It is unclear what role the county may ultimately play with regard to the operation, maintenance and possession of the gymnasium, but regardless, it appears there is a good chance that Fort Ritchie-area residents -- including basketball, indoor soccer and other sports teams from Smithsburg -- may soon have access to Cascade's beautiful, one-of-a-kind mountain-top gymnasium, racquetball courts and weight room.

There are other steps PMDC needs to take. The DOD guide referenced above states that "base land and buildings offer an opportunity to satisfy unmet requirements for affordable housing, community facilities and services, as well as an opportunity to create jobs." It also states that the LRA's challenge is "to identify local economic and community development needs" and develop a plan that achieves a balance between them. Toward that end, we will ask PMDC to provide, as soon as possible, a clear presentation to the public of all existing and proposed base reuse plans, parcel by parcel, building by building, so that interested citizens and community organizations can provide input on those plans should they desire to do so.

One thing PMDC needs to consider soon is how recreational programs at facilities such as the gymnasium can be targeted at area youth to alleviate recurrent vandalism at Fort Ritchie.

As future plans and decisions are made concerning the tens of millions of dollars in community assets at Fort Ritchie, we are going to work to ensure that the developer, PMDC, operates as both a law-abiding public instrumentality of Maryland and as an LRA focused on the interests of the communities most affected by the closure of Fort Ritchie. In that regard, we believe state and county officials have a moral and legal obligation to proactively support our efforts.

Karl Weissenbach, Jim Lemon

Cascade

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