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Bartlett - Agencies show interest in Fort Ritchie

July 22, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Several top federal government agencies have shown interest in using the former Fort Ritchie land, U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett said Monday.

Bartlett, R-Md., said representatives from the National Security Agency, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the CIA and Congress are among those who have talked about using the land for part of their operations or as a backup.

The agency representatives agreed that the fort would make a good "continuation of operations" site should their main offices come under attack or fail in some way, Bartlett said during a visit to The Herald-Mail's newsroom, following a trip to Fort Ritchie to show the property to a government agency.

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PenMar Executive Director Richard Rook said Bartlett has done an excellent job marketing the property. Almost all of Bartlett's 15 trips to Fort Ritchie this year have been to discuss it with prospective tenants, including "some folks right there at the top of government," Rook said.

The National Security Agency studies and deciphers secret messages. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency gathers geographic intelligence information to support national security.

About six weeks ago, Bartlett met with the Cascade Committee and shared with its members a list of about 35 government agencies that were contacted about using the fort property, according to Karl Weissenbach, the director of the committee.

Bartlett showed the committee the list on the condition that it not be made public, Weissenbach said.

He said all four agencies Bartlett mentioned Monday were on the list.

Bartlett previously declined to name prospective tenants.

Fort Ritchie is about three miles from Site R, an underground military command center in southcentral Pennsylvania.

The base at Fort Ritchie shut down in 1998. The state of Maryland created the PenMar Development Corp. to redevelop the land there and create new jobs.

Progress has been hampered by legal obstacles. Currently, the biggest impediment is a federal court order halting the transfer of land from the Army to PenMar because a legal notice was flawed.

Rook said PenMar is waiting for clearance from the Army to readvertise the property.

In May, U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both D-Md., co-sponsored a bill to speed up the transfer of land at the fort so the International Masonry Institute could expand its training program there. Of the 26 acres that would be transferred, the institute would get about 23, Rook said.

The International Masonry Institute, which is based in Annapolis, has leased land at Fort Ritchie for several years. It runs a masonry job program there.

Last October, the institute announced plans to spend another $7.5 million to expand its training program, possibly creating 200 or more new jobs.

Bartlett said Monday that the International Masonry Institute is attractive as a "bird in hand," a current tenant, but it would not make an ideal anchor for the redevelopment of the fort property.

Weissenbach said the Cascade Committee, which is interested in quality-of-life issues, supports keeping the International Masonry Institute.

The institute has been "a real good neighbor" and has provided jobs, he said.

Some of the same issues that make Fort Ritchie a difficult sell for commercial tenants - such as seclusion - make it "a great location for security," Bartlett said.

"No one drives by, unless it's for fly-fishing," he said.

Bartlett said he is pushing hard to find tenants for the property and hopes redevelopment will happen "sooner rather than later."

Bartlett said that as a congressman, he can "open doors that (PenMar) can't."

Weissenbach said the Cascade Committee is concerned that if a government agency moves into Fort Ritchie, security would tighten, cutting off public access to parks and recreation features there.

But Rook said Fort Ritchie "was always a highly controlled facility" and never a park. The most important thing for PenMar, he said, is to have the property developed to help the local economy.

"We're very confident that we're moving forward, highlighting the property in a good light," Rook said.

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