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Delegation 'oversight' puzzles would-be Fort Ritchie developer

March 15, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

As the Washington County's General Assembly delegation and the board of PenMar Development Corp. battle over whether some of PenMar's newer members will be removed, one important player has been reduced to sitting on the sidelines.

Lerner Enterprises, which has been in negotiation to be the "master developer" of the old Fort Ritchie Army base, has never been contacted by state officials about how the bill would affect ongoing talks.

So said Kevin Rogers, the chief operating officer of Oak Hill Properties and an employee of Lerner, a 50-year-old company that has developed a ton a projects in the metropolitan Washington area.

Whatever you think of Lerner - and I suggest you visit their Web site at: www.lernerenterprises.com - they're the biggest fish to eye developing the property, located on top of a mountain in Cascade.

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Though Lerner expressed interest in the project last July, it took months - and a change in the the composition of the PenMar board - to get the talks going.

In October the Washington County Commissioners appointed a five-member committee to handle the negotiations, including: Economic Development Commission Director Tim Troxell, EDC President Peggy Bushey, PenMar Board member Steve Hull and Dick Phoebus, president and chief executive officer of "CHIEF," the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, Inc.

Talks have been proceeding since and sources close to those sessions say that the process has been part education, part negotiation, as the PenMar board learned how mega-developers do business and Lerner found out what PenMar wants.

Now that Rogers and his associates have put months into this process, Rogers said he is worried about what might happen under a reconstituted board and puzzled that Del. Chris Shank, who's taken the lead on the legislation, hasn't called him.

"No one has made any effort to sit down with us to say, 'Your hard work with this board will not be wasted,' " Rogers said.

He said he asked EDC's Troxell if it made any sense to go forward with negotiations now, given that the process might have to be repeated if a new board is appointed.

"I don't know if I'm wanted; Lerner doesn't know if it's wanted. No one who's pushing this legislation has called, and everyone has my phone number," or can get it easily, he said.

"You're the first one who's called me on this," he said.

Rogers said he didn't want to speak to the merits of the legislation and does not feel he or other Lerner officials know Shank - or the local political landscape - well enough to approach the delegation.

"I would personally feel very uncomfortable" doing that, he said.

Though he wouldn't comment on the legislation, he did confirm that Lerner had advised PenMar to make more recreational opportunities available to the public there.

Former PenMar chair Paula Lampton suggested in testimony before the Maryland House Economic Matters Committee on March 10 that "personal agendas" got in the way of redevelopment, in part because some members wanted to open the base to recreation.

Rogers confirmed he'd given that advice, and said that in addition to building a better relationship with the community, it would enhance the property's image.

When you bring prospects in, Rogers said, it helps if they see that there's something happening there. And a facility like the International Masonry Institute, one of the few tenants there, needs recreational opportunities for its young students, he said.

Rogers said he'd like to see more facilities, like the old base's bowling alley, open to residents. Amenities like that on site can only help development, and need not be a drain on PenMar's funds, Rogers said.

"Just find an operator and give them a good deal with the expectation that somewhere down the road if it's successful, they'll have to share some money. But in the meantime, it's up to them to get it up and running," he said.

Wouldn't you rather work in an area where there were a gym, a bowling alley and some restaurants nearby? Wouldn't you rather live in a place like that?

And if you're worried about bringing jobs back, wouldn't you rather have somebody who knows how do that working on your behalf? If so, would somebody please ask Del. Shank to call Rogers? If he needs it, I've got the phone number.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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