It's time both sides swallow some pride and make peace at Ritchie

March 24, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

CASCADE - The old Fort Ritchie army base is sort of a Washington County version of Peru's Machu Picchu, a bunch of symmetrical stone buildings up on a big hill. No one knows exactly what Machu Picchu was used for centuries ago, and no one knows exactly what Fort Ritchie will be used for in centuries hence.

The only real fighting the fort has seen has come in the past several years, after the base was closed in the late '90s and a re-development group was formed by the Washington County Commissioners to figure out what to do with the formerly self-contained community of some 2,000 people.

The PenMar redevelopment board has come under fire from some residents of Cascade, the small community that lives tooth by jowl next to the Fort - and not without reason.

County Commissioners packed the board with some of the best business minds the community had to offer, but neglected to fill a seat with someone who actually lives in Cascade.


That planted a seed of suspicion that grew into a tree of contempt when the board began to - as economic development commissions are wont to do - shroud all its actions, documents and financial records in the deepest secrecy.

The base began life in the 1800s as an ice-cutting plant, the product sent out by rail to cool southern tongues. But now there have been some heated words from both sides, as the community presses for more access to the base's recreational amenities, and questions why after five years there has been precious little success by PenMar in finding new economic opportunities.

PenMar responds that finding new jobs is indeed its prime directive, and that its officers don't have the time to become glorified scout masters for the community, facilitating the use of gyms, firing ranges or golf courses for the local populace.

PenMar's tone has not been entirely pleasant, either. It has talked to the community as a parent would talk to a small child, telling him that the plate full of spinach is for the greater good.

Now if there are feathers to be smoothed, it will largely be up to Rich Rook, who's into his fifth month as executive director of PenMar, a former Air Force pilot with a lengthy resume that includes three years in the military's Stealth fighter program.

Rook can be excused if gymnasiums fall to the bottom of his priority list. PenMar's biggest problem at the moment is that although the property should have been transferred to the development group years ago, the Army still owns the base.

Any number of borderline-bizzare flukes have held up the process - the discovery of unexploded shells and caps under the ground, a lawsuit from a disgruntled tenant, obtuse military regulations and PenMar's track record of abrasive relations with just about every entity in which it has come in contact.

PenMar was within four days of receiving the deed to Phase I of the transfer when a lawsuit by the defunct Role Models Academy upset the process. And obviously it's significantly harder for PenMar to successfully market land which it does not own.

Equally obvious is that despite its beauty, it's hard to find business and industry interested in a site on a country road on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.

Despite the remote location, Rook believes in three workforce solutions: Housing on the base itself, of which there is plenty, a reverse-commute for people who live in the Frederick County Valley to the east and a growing number of upscale and very affordable properties not too far from Fort Ritchie's main gate.

Of course before the workers must come the work, and while Rook expresses a desire for improved community relations, he says the bottom line is that he was hired to create high-quality jobs.

Can Rook, can anyone, keep PenMar, the Army, the tenants and the community happy? I doubt it, but then several years ago most people would not have thought planes could fly through radar undetected. There are signs of progress. Rook freely answers questions about PenMar's finances, where in the past it took a Freedom of Information request. Rook admits PenMar's penchant for secrecy has even choked out positive news, such as the board's fight behind the scenes to keep Cascade Elementary open.

He says he wants community meetings and in a recent letter to the editor Rook, as one critic wryly noted, disclosed more about PenMar in one day than the group had volunteered over the past five years.

PenMar has complained in the past that their antagonists amount to only a handful of Cascade rabble rousers, not the community as a whole. Perhaps, but even rabble rousers ask some good questions now and then.

If there is a deal to be made here it might be this: PenMar and the County Commissioners would do well to make a meaningful extension of good faith to the community. PenMar has to understand it is an outsider. Cascade feels as if an intruder has taken over its own living room and put "no trespassing" signs around it.

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