Biotech research center planned for former base

March 11, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

HAGERSTOWN - A new biotechnology research center is planned for the former Fort Ritchie Army base in Cascade, Richard Rook, executive director of PenMar Development Corp., said Wednesday during an address to the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce at the Plaza Hotel.

Rook said the Western Maryland Biotechnologies Center would include four research and development companies: New Horizon Digital and Microcosm, both of Columbia, Md.; Advanced Biotherapy Inc. of Los Angeles; and Battelle Memorial Institute, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.

While there are no final contracts in hand, "we have a letter of intent," Rook said.

Rook added that he anticipated "fruition in three to six months. We expect a presence in late summer."

Rook credited U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., with being "the leading force in bringing this to PenMar."

Bartlett's office confirmed the initiative Wednesday afternoon, releasing a statement in which the congressman said "I'm excited about the prospect for a biotechnical research and development center at Fort Ritchie with partners that include leading biotech businesses."

High-paying jobs

Once finalized, the project initially should bring jobs for 36 scientists at the former U.S. Army base, and potentially 100 to 200, Rook said. These would be high-paying research and development positions, he said, noting that the companies involved are established, successful corporations. Battelle, for example, posted $2 billion in revenues last year, he said.

The center would be in the base's commissary, Rook said, and the research conducted there would be "clean."

PenMar, the agency created to redevelop the base, still is negotiating with Lerner Enterprises of Bethesda, Md., Rook said. Lerner is a development firm with a long string of commercial, retail and residential centers in its history, including White Flint Mall in Montgomery County and the Annapolis Harbour Center in Maryland, and the Dulles Town Center Mall and the Reston Town Center in Virginia. Lerner has been negotiating to become master developer for redevelopment of the base.

PenMar is conducting "ongoing discussions with federal agencies" interested in leasing 60,000 square feet of space at Fort Ritchie, Rook said. Although there's been no commitment yet, Rook said the agencies weren't looking at any other properties. Which federal agencies were interested in the former base, he wasn't "at liberty to say."

Bartlett's office said he was active in those negotiations as well. "He is vigorously marketing the attributes of Fort Ritchie at every opportunity," spokeswoman Lisa Wright said.

Rook also used the breakfast meeting to denounce the county delegation's bills to reconstitute PenMar's board of directors. While members currently are appointed by the Washington County Commissioners, the bills, already filed in both houses of the General Assembly, would allow the commissioners to appoint only five members. Two would be appointed by members of the House of Delegates and two more by state senators. The bills also would establish a residency requirement that Rook said would eliminate the current board leaders.

If the bills became law, Rook said he feared it would be difficult to find new board members willing to serve. He added that the controversy surrounding appointments to the board could hurt negotiations with clients for the base.

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