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Ritchie development group must perform or disband

July 14, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

It has been five years since the 1108th Signal Brigade transferred its colors from its mountaintop home at Fort Ritchie to its new quarters at Frederick's Fort Detrick. And the brigade wasn't the only thing that marched away in September 1998 when Fort Ritchie ceased to be a U.S. Army base.

Thousands of jobs that once provided economic security to the surrounding community of Cascade were also lost, and the efforts to replace them have been disappointing at best.

A one-time plan to create a center for high-tech companies was dashed after a consultant said that there weren't enough county residents with advanced degrees to provide a work force for such firms. And it's apparently going to take Congressional action to get land for the one solid prospect, the International Masonry Institute, transferred to that group.

Some of the best and brightest members of Washington County's business community, including former F&M Bank CEO William Reuter, have worked on the redevelopment agency, the PenMar Development Corporation. And yet the record doesn't show many successes. It's time for PenMar to consider some new ideas.

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The group will have a chance to do that tomorrow when it's scheduled to elect new officers. Whoever heads up the group ought to begin with a look back and what didn't work and why.

It's always difficult to criticize an economic development organization, because the contacts it makes and the negotiations it undertakes are confidential. Are the prospects asking for the moon and promising only a few minimum-wage jobs, or are good companies being turned away because the development group is unreasonable and inflexible?

It's tough to tell. For outsiders, trying to judge the performance of such an agency is like trying to watch a horse race through a bed sheet.

And in PMDC's defense, for all the old fort's amenities, it has some significant handicaps. The only access is via two-lane roads which can be fogged in or iced-up in winter. Not a good situation for commuters.

And then there was the problem of UXO, or unexploded ordinance, which had to be cleaned up before much of that land could safely be used.

Still, I had high hopes in February of last year when George W. Fletcher was named PMDC's executive director. Fletcher came from a post as a corporate realty manager for Procter & Gamble.

According to Brett Wilson, then the PMDC board's chairman, Fletcher had "decades of experience in industrial site development, commercial construction and project management at major corporations like Westinghouse and Procter & Gamble that will fit with our needs right now."

But by June, Fletcher was gone, taking his decades of experience with him. Wilson would only say that "the board had decided to go in another direction."

The group has since hired Richard Rook for the post and given $10,000 toward the salary of Stephen Christian, the county's new business development specialist who says his goal is to target high-tech companies with high-paying jobs.

Given that the high-tech approach didn't work last time, a better use of some of its cash might be to hire a public-relations consultant because to date, PMDC's efforts in that area have been abysmal.

PMDC couldn't work out agreements with local sheriff's deputies for the use of the base's shooting range and with a local sports league for the use of the gymnasium, even though both of those facilities were paid for with taxpayers' dollars.

It also got in a silly fight with one of its tenants about placement of a couple of flag poles, which led some veterans to write letters asking what was wrong with displaying Old Glory on a former Army base.

Now PMDC's Rook has said that it was the deputies who wouldn't agree to a reasonable fee to use the range and that the gym may still be used if the Waynesboro YMCA agrees to do it. But when an organization has to say "no," there's a way to do it without making people angry. And if your dealings with small community organizations are a mess, what does that say about how you negotiate with the big fish?

Even if PMDC doesn't hire a p.r. person, it should get some help in that area from a new board member, Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, superintendent of the Washington County school system. Morgan knows that organizations that want public support have to be accountable to the public.

I haven't even mentioned the Cascade Committee, the local citizens' group that had to push PMDC to send copies of its documents to a local library where the public could inspect them. The committee has also objected to PMDC's Monday-morning breakfast meetings, which make it near-impossible for working folks to attend.

But let's assume for a moment that the Cascade Committee is entirely wrong and its complaints are all invalid. Even if you believe that - and I don't - the only way for PMDC to shut its critics up is to perform, to show some successes.

After five years it's time for more than talk about what might be. And if PMDC's new leaders offer excuses instead of results, the Washington County Commissioners should disband the group and try something else.

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