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A hopeful sign at the former Fort Ritchie

January 15, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Community groups seeking more space for youth recreation may soon get it on the former Fort Ritchie army base, according to Washington County Commissioner William Wivell.

Wivell, a member of the PenMar Development Corporation board, the group charged with redeveloping the old fort, on Tuesday said that the base's gym might be turned over to a community group for $1, as was done with a similar facility at Letterkenny Army Depot in Franklin County, Pa.

Wivell's statement not only gives some hope to youth sports advocateses whose teams need the space, but could go a long way toward easing tensions between PMDC and some members of the surrounding community.

For more than a year Cascade residents Jim Lemon and Karl Weissenbach have pushed PMDC to be more open about its activities, and to make some base facilities available for community use.

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Last year the two were distressed to learn that the latest version of the PMDC redevelopment plan, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, changed a previous strategy that called for the possible donation of buildings like the gym to the community. Instead, PMDC's new plan said the gym would be demolished, at a cost of $178,000.

On Nov. 19, 2002, Lemon and Weissenbach presented a petition signed by hundreds of citizens asking, among other things, that Washington County reopen the building for public use.

But that couldn't happen immediately because the building needs repair. Among other things, the roof leaks and the building isn't in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The good news is that it won't cost a fortune to rehabilitate the building or to operate it.

A re-use memorandum done by Gary Rohrer, the county's Director of Public Works, said that the roof could be fixed for only $250. Other needed repairs and upgrades would cost just a bit under $18,000. As for operating the building, Rohrer's memo estimated that cost at $24,300 a year. That amount, however, does not include on-site staffing.

Some arrangement for that must be made because in their Sept. 9 meeting, the PMDC decided to direct all requests for public use of the facilities to the county commissioners. The minutes of that meeting made it clear that many PMDC board members felt that it wasn't their job to provide "service to the public in any capacity."

Lemon and Wiessenbach disagree, saying Department of Defense guidelines require organizations like PMDC to work with the surrounding communities.

Let's assume, however, that there are no such guidelines and no obligation to cooperate with local citizens. Cooperation still makes good sense, for a number of reasons.

If you're showing the facility to business prospects, wouldn't it be better for them to see a working gymnasium that the community - and possibly their own children - could use in the evenings, and their own employees during the day?

And given that there's been some vandalism on the base, doesn't it make sense to have more "eyes on the street" in the form of parents and youths on their way to and from ball games?

(The same logic would seem to apply to the fort's firing range, which was put off-limits to local police because local departments declined to pay a $3,000-per-month charge.)

And since Wivell said Tuesday the gym's exterior needs some work, why not give it to a community group with the proviso that its members spruce up the exterior at their cost?

But the best reason to do what Wivell suggested comes from Carrie Gouff, president of CSL youth basketball. Gouff, who supported the effort to get use of the gym last November, has had to start CSL's season without that valuable space.

The result: Gouff said the teams for which they had gym space filled up and 25 children had to be turned away. That's not a lot of children, but Gouff also said the school facilities they're using now are so tightly scheduled that there's no time for practices. And practice is where players learn basic skills, without the pressure they face in a game.

Lemon and Weissenbach are only two citizens and in a recent meeting with them, Weissenbach told me that even some in the Cascade community don't agree with his approach.

But as former Commissioner Paul Swartz said on an entirely different topic, if you don't ask, you're not going to get anything. And Lemon and Weissenbach aren't asking for themselves, but for the community. Here's hoping Wivell's idea is the first of many that gets PMDC and the Cascade community working together, instead of at cross purposes.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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