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For now, no public use of Fort Ritchie gym

March 10, 2003

Barring some intervention by the Washington County Commissioners, it may be a year before any community sports groups can use the gymnasium at the former Fort Ritchie.

That's because Pen Mar Development Corporation has rejected a proposal by the CSL Youth Athletic organization and a Waynesboro YMCA study of the feasibility of the Y offering programs there could take until 2004, according to Jeff Rock, head of the Y's task force.

Carrie Gouff, CSL's president, had hoped to use the facility this spring, since CSL has already had to turn children away from its programs because the school gymnasiums it uses now are so heavily booked. In January Commisioner William Wivell had suggested that the facility might be turned over to a community group, as officials have done at Letterkenney Army Depot, for a nominal sum.

CSL had proposed a $1-a-year lease and promised to spend $8,000 on repairs, a sum that would be reimbursed by PMDC when the lease ended. PMDC was asked to provide water and sewer, with CSL providing gas, electric and phone service. CSL would provide liability insurance while PMDC was asked to provide hazard insurance, whatever that is.

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There were other provisions, but the last paragraph made it clear that this was a proposal that would not bind the parties in the same way a lease would. Gouff said she told Brett Wilson, the PMDC board's chairman, that nothing was set in stone and that CSL was willing to negotiate further.

But Gouff didn't get the chance. A Feb. 27 letter from Richard D. Rook, Pen Mar's executive director, said the executive committee has denied it for two reasons, including:

- It does not meet the criteria for public use, as defined in PMDC's minutes of Sept. 9, 2002 which state that "we do not have the expertise nor are we charged with the mission of providing service to the public in any capacity." Requests like CSL's should go to the county commissioners, the letter said.

- It doesn't create jobs or generate revenues equal or greater to the operating costs.

The letter concludes by saying that "any further proposal must include detailed information that CSL is a viable business entity...which can operate the gym without creating a liability for PMDC."

Commissioner Wivell said Monday he was "extremely disappointed" by the action, since CSL is a recognized community organization.

But on Tuesday, after he'd had a chance to read Rook's letter, Wivell said that last paragraph makes it clear that another proposal could be submitted.

Rook said much the same thing Monday, adding that he hoped Gouff would become a part of the YMCA task force that will study the situation.

"It's not that I don't support her cause, but I have a board I have to answer to," Rook said.

Rook said he approached the Waynesboro YMCA in January about the possibility of offering programs there. YMCA officials referred me to Jeff Rock, who's heading up the Y's task force.

"It will take a minimum of six months to get good data. The Y probably won't be ready to do anything until the end of the year," he said.

Rock said one hurdle is that the YMCA board has been looking at offering some programs in the western part of Franklin County, in the Greencastle, Pa., area.

Rook said Gouff made it difficult for her cause by approaching the board directly, instead of going to the prospect negotiation committee.

"I would probably say she was given some bad advice," Rook said.

What it boils down to, Rook said, is that PMDC needs to create jobs.

Isn't it possible, I asked Rook, that such an amenity on-site, where workers of those prospective companies could exercise, would assist in job creation? Possibly, Rook said, but there needs to be a plan.

Let me suggest two things. The first, which I shared with Rook on Monday, is that there's a better way to say "no" and good reasons to cut community groups a little slack if they're not as savvy about jumping through PMDC's hoops as corporate officials would be.

As to PMDC's contention that it doesn't have any role in providing service to the public, the Department of Defense "Community Guide to Base Reuse" says that working with the community - and meeting some of its needs, finances permitting - is one role of such a redevelopment authority.

That said, there are some dedicated businesspeople on the PMDC board who have the tough job of replacing the jobs lost when the base closed.

But the board seems to have a tin ear for public relations. PMDC would do well to consider the possibility that just as economic development officials count on existing businesses to sell new prospects on an area, PMDC could get some sales help from volunteers like Carrie Gouff if it could find a way to make them partners instead of adversaries.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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