Revenge of the old PenMar Board? Lawmakers' timing raises the question

February 15, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

It's easy to see why the Washington County Delegation might have wanted to shake up the PenMar Development Corp. at any time over the past five years or so. It's not so easy to see why they want to do it now.

For the first time, the board, as it is newly construed after a spate of resignations last fall, and the Cascade residents are getting along. And master planners, developers with deep pockets, are taking a serious look at the former Army base. Cooperation and flexibility no longer seem inconceivable concepts on the mountaintop.

So yes, it does leave the delegation open to allegations of skullduggery which were leveled by Cascade residents at a meeting in Annapolis this week.

Residents say they believe that some of the former members of the old board are bitter about the circumstances that led to their resignations. So to get back at the current board, they went behind the scenes to twist the delegation's arm to effectively gut the new board by making county residency a requirement for service. (Seeing the brewing firestorm, the delegation backed off a bit Fiday, now saying that two "outsiders" are OK.)


Indeed, that seems a curious requirement, especially since the base is tucked a stone's throw from both county and state lines. It's easy to argue that a redeveloped Fort Ritchie will have a greater impact on Waynesboro, Pa., and Sabillasville, in Frederick County, Md., than it will have on Hagerstown.

Second, all the bad ink generated by Pen Mar was the product of the last board: Lawsuits and counter lawsuits with a tenant; ongoing wrangling over the conveyance of the property from the Army; discord with the community (which until recently wasn't even allowed permission to use the base's gymnasium and was thwarted in requests to have a local voice on the board); board members themselves calling the group "dysfunctional"; poor treatment of their one successful tenant, a masonry school which may yet leave - and the big one: For five years, next to nothing happened in the way of development, which was the express reason for PenMar's creation in the first place.

The old board's philosophy appeared to be the desire to hold out for that one big, superstar tenant - high tech or education, perhaps - that would make it worth the wait, even if the wait was 10 years or so. That may not have been a bad trade off in the long haul, had it worked.

And to be fair, PenMar has been struck with bad luck. Explosives were found to be buried there, land negotiations were stuck in government red tape and the much-celebrated Role Models Academy for disadvantaged kids turned into a mess.

After more than half a decade went by, the community understandably grew impatient. And the board broke down into verbal spats and finger pointing.

Were the delegation to have acted, it seems that might have been the time.

But why now, after the board has purged itself and regenerated with good people? This is a critical time for PenMar, and hacking away at the new board members is not going to inspire outside companies to do business here. Is the delegation saying it wants to go back to the Old Way, when rancor carried the day?

Lawmakers say they are doing this to "restore jobs." Whose jobs? The jobs of the former board members?

The best chance for restoring jobs to the community is to leave this board alone and see what it can do. Certainly it has already proved it has better team chemistry than the old board.

The last board as a whole was a talented group of top local business talent and community superstars. Perhaps that was the problem. Sometimes you pack a board with so many strong personalities with cross-purposes and ideas that the whole is far less than the sum of the parts.

If the county reconstitutes another Dream Team, or simply to serves the grudges of ones scorned, the prospects for success do not look good.

This should be about the betterment of the community, not who gets the credit. If the new board lands Lerner, or some other major tenant, I'd be perfectly willing to stipulate that the old board had a hand in it. Who knows, maybe we'll catch lightning in a bottle and the old board's pursuit of a big fish will prove visionary.

But the plain fact is, the old board, for whatever reason, wasn't getting it done. Now we have new blood that's in danger of being axed before they even get started - for the simple sin of living a bit over county lines.

The written mission of PenMar is to promote the state's economy, not some strictly drawn political jurisdiction. Let's hope state lawmakers recognize that in time to derail our delegation's little lark. It makes no more sense than would a law saying the people who eventually find work at a redeveloped Fort Ritchie must come from Washington County as well.

Washington County has some fine people. But, maybe you've noticed, we don't always corner the market on common sense.

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