Holding the fort

August 31, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

When the ice in Lake Royer got to be 8 inches thick, a loud steam whistle would sound. It was work time.

Men would come to break the ice. In exchange, the Buena Vista Ice Co. paid them $1.35 to $1.75 a day. The ice was stored in 11 wooden houses that could each store 32,000 pounds of ice for up to three years.

That part of Fort Ritchie's past ended in 1926, when the Maryland National Guard took over. Now, the fort property is mostly a mix of residential renters and masons in training. Many buildings are vacant.


When Fort Ritchie closed as an Army garrison - on Oct. 1, 1998 - 2,000 jobs went with it. The PenMar Development Corp. took over. The Army still owns the land, but PenMar, a state agency, has the task of trying to bring it back to life.

The initial goal was to turn the fort into a business park for high-technology companies and corporate training centers. But as the five-year anniversary approaches, progress is on hold.

The main impediment has been a lawsuit filed by Role Models America, a former Fort Ritchie tenant, against the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education. Role Models America, which operated a government-funded camp for high school dropouts, alleged that the legal notification advertising the land was inadequate.

A U.S. appeals court ruled in February that the notice was indeed flawed and imposed an injunction prohibiting any conveyance.

"That is such a key - conveyance - of moving forward and being able to market the property," said Richard Rook, PenMar's executive director for the last 10 months.

Without possession of the land, PenMar's ability to offer it to suitors is tenuous.

However, Rook said plenty is happening in the meantime. PenMar's staff is fixing up dozens of housing units for people living elsewhere on the base who will be relocated.

Also, Rook said he shows the property often to business and government agencies which have shown interest.

U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., told The Herald-Mail in July that representatives from several segments of the federal government - including the National Security Agency, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the CIA and Congress - have toured Fort Ritchie.

Rook said a "master developer" - which he would not name because of a confidentiality agreement - is considering a residential or commercial project, or a mix of both. Bartlett spokeswoman Lisa Wright has identified the developer as Lerner Enterprises of Bethesda, Md.

In the dark

The Cascade Committee would like to know more.

Karl Weissenbach, the director of the committee, said PenMar seems to operate secretly and sometimes illogically as it moves from plan to plan, without notice.

"We have snippets," committee member Jim Lemon said, "but as a community, we're being treated like mushrooms" - kept in the dark.

"We originally formed to address the (Cascade Elementary) school closing issue," Weissenbach said, "but we realized the future of the school and the future of the community (are) all tied to what will happen at the base. It will address housing, unemployment. ..."

"... Low school enrollment," Lemon added.

"All roads form through Fort Ritchie," Weissenbach said.

On Wednesday, Rook led a reporter from The Herald-Mail along those roads to show and explain the fort property, which stands at about 592 acres.

The state bought about 580 acres as a training site for the Maryland National Guard in 1926 for $60,000, according to an Army history of the base. It was named Camp Albert C. Ritchie in honor of the governor.

During World War II, the Army leased Camp Ritchie from the state for $1 a year. Counterintelligence personnel were trained there.

From 1942 to 1945, the Army invested $5 million and built 165 assorted structures, the Army history says.

Rook's tour started with PenMar's headquarters in "the castle" - which seems like an appropriate place for a man named Rook to work.

The castle is as regal as one might think. Rook said it was built from natural fieldstone around 1928 and served as a brigade headquarters.

Hanging in Rook's office is Capt. Robert Barrack's Oct. 11, 1934, hand-drawn schematic plan for the base.

Across from the castle are about three dozen stone "finger" buildings, so named because of their narrowness facing the road. They are of the same era as the castle and a number of other buildings on the base.

Rook said the finger buildings were kitchen and mess halls in their time.

Additionally, Role Models America used them as classrooms.

The school for dropouts was seen at the time as a large step toward redeveloping the base. But shortly before Role Models America's two-year, $10 million U.S. Department of Labor grant expired, the company filed for bankruptcy.

"It was supposed to be a major endeavor," Rook said. "Nobody knew that a $10 million grant would be squandered."

Signs of disrepair

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