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Fort's athletic facility now open to the public

November 17, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

CASCADE - Sounds of children counting, parents cheering and basketballs bouncing echoed throughout the Fort Ritchie gym on Sunday, the first time in years that the former military base's athletic facility has been used by the public.

The Chewsville, Smithsburg, Leitersburg Youth Athletic Organization (CSL) held a grand opening Sunday afternoon to celebrate the leasing of the Fort Ritchie gym to its youth sports league.

"It's long overdue. It's great to see a community asset return to the community," said Ron Sulchek, chairman of the PenMar Development Corp., a group that was created by the state in 1997 to redevelop the former base, which the Army shut down in 1998.

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Sulchek said PenMar leases the base from the Army and PenMar agreed to lease the space to Washington County, which is subleasing the space to CSL.

Washington County Commissioner William J. Wivell, a member of the PenMar board of directors, said the county is subleasing the space to the youth league because PenMar doesn't see itself as having a role in recreation.

"I'm just grateful the county commissioners were willing to step in and make a difference," he said.

CSL is subleasing the gym from the county for $1 per year so the youth sports league may use the space for practices and games, said the organization's president, Carrie Gouff.

"It was vacant, in our area, and we needed space and it had lots of it," she said.

Gouff said the league has been after the PenMar Development Corp. to use the space for about two years, which is about how long it's been since the facility was used by Role Models America Inc., an academy for high school dropouts.

CSL's basketball program has 300 participants in grades two through eight, who will be the primary users of the gym. Gouff said plans are to eventually bring the remaining sports programs, and the other 300 children they serve, up to Fort Ritchie.

Over the years, the group has used gyms in Washington County Public Schools, but a recent School Board decision to add user fees at schools for youth organizations led CSL to look outside the school system, Gouff said.

She said the group had to double its registration fee from $30 per child to $60 once it was notified about the new school user fee. Once the group found it could use the Fort Ritchie gym, it was able to add two more traveling basketball teams, she said.

Gouff said the group will continue to use gyms at Smithsburg Elementary and Middle schools for its younger basketball players, but will use the Fort Ritchie gym for tournaments, and most of its practices and games. She said CSL's wrestling teams will continue to use Smithsburg High School.

The money the group collected in registration fees will help cover the costs to operate the Fort Ritchie gym, she said.

Gouff originally was told the facility needed more than $40,000 in work to get it up to working order, but she said that cost will be offset by the number of CSL volunteers that have offered to provide maintenance free of charge.

John Barvir, who helps maintain the Fort Ritchie gym through the league, said he doesn't feel sympathetic toward the School Board, which said it needed to ask youth leagues for money to keep up the school spaces they used.

Gouff said the group figured it would cost them $13,000 over the basketball season, which runs from November to March, to use the four or five school gyms it was using.

An added bonus to the base is that Army officials still living there, who use the gym for their own practices, have offered to coach teams in the league and help referee games, she said.

John Faulkner, 26, of Cascade, said it's good for children to have a place outside their school to play sports. He said he never had the opportunity while growing up to play at a gym the size of Fort Ritchie's.

"It's a little farther to drive, but Jay seems more comfortable here," said Smithsburg parent Gale Shafer, 42, referring to her son.

Twelve-year-old Michael Rishell said he likes the balcony that overlooks the Fort Ritchie gym. He and his teammates stood on it while watching a scrimmage that was being played below.

He said the floors are a little slippery because of the dust, but he said he heard that would be fixed.

Jay Shafer, 12, said the backboards are a little higher than those at the schools, but he said he's ready for the challenge.

"It's sort of like the NBA," he said.

Karl Weissenbach, director of the Cascade Committee, said this is the first time the Fort Ritchie facility has been made available to the public.

"It's so symbolic of what can happen that's in the best interest of the community at large," he said.

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