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Role Models should remind us about the dangers of desperation deals

July 05, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

In the end, the once-proud Fort Ritchie Army base in Cascade became to Washington County what an old washing machine is to the proprietor of a yard sale: You know it has some value, but when mid-afternoon rolls around, you're happy if you can just get someone to haul it away for free.

Ritchie, which was tentatively sold this week for what some are calling peanuts, had become such a public-relations headache that it was no longer worth the bother. And if this deal works out, everyone will be breathing a sigh of relief. Everyone outside of Cascade, that is.

The real estate trust company that's buying Ritchie owns about 120 office properties, about 40 percent of which are rented out to the government intelligence and defense community.

It manages only half the space, and has far less experience with community development, than Lerner Enterprises, the plum of master developers that PenMar basically kicked aside for the offense of telling the truth: That developing good, permanent jobs would take investments of time and money.

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From a business standpoint, the new company, Corporate Office Properties Trust of Columbia, Md., is an impressive outfit. It has profited handsomely from the growth in homeland-security spending, and in all likelihood you can safely put two and two together to figure out what COPT has in mind for the old Army base. This is one of those rare cases where the fact that everyone involved is saying nothing tells us all we need to know.

A COPT spokeswoman hung up on one of our reporters rather than answer a couple of questions. Obviously our reporter didn't whisper the right code-phrase, such as "The cow jumped over the moon," or whatever it is that gets you in the door at the National Security Agency.

(I have a friend/troublemaker who sees irony in the fact that the feds originally divested themselves of Fort Ritchie to cut the cost of inhabiting the property, and now the property is about to be handed over to a private company that will probably lease it back to - the feds! But that's my friend talking, not me).

Of course this is problematic for Cascade residents, because ever since day one, their major beef with the whole, ongoing Ritchie affair has been secrecy and their exclusion from the process.

It does not look as if this is about to improve. Residents are irked that the latest vote of the PenMar Development Corporation came during an unadvertised meeting; the final sale will be determined by a "negotiating committee" and is not subject to final approval by the full board; no one will say what the base is to be used for; no appraisal telling us how much the land is worth was released; no price tag was released; and worst of all, no public bids were solicited, and all other suitors have been summarily dismissed.

How much will COPT pay for the 636-acre fort and all its considerable buildings and infrastructure? They don't want to be specific, but let's put it this way: New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez would only have to work from now until October in order to pay the price in cash.

The county has been promised 1,000 jobs, but if these jobs are not forthcoming there will be nothing the county can do - since COPT will own the land, the county will have no more oversight. And if the jobs do come, will they be permanent? Homeland-security style jobs are often contractual. And who will get those jobs? Anyone we know out of the current PenMar establishment? If anyone in a position of influence with PenMar lands sweetly with COPT, there is going to be some serious 'splainin' to do.

The locals in Cascade are already dubious, calling the deal "a hushed, rushed agreement for an outright sale of Fort Ritchie to an overly secretive, private company for unknown end-uses without any public knowledge ..."

And you have to start to wonder if this isn't exactly the way PenMar Director Rich Rook wanted it. He's never seemed to have much use for the Cascade community, even balking at the innocuous idea of allowing local residents to play ball in the Ritchie gym.

Hushed, rushed, secretive, private, unknown - yes, all the Cascade Committee hot buttons were pushed, all right. And in COPT, does PenMar, and Rook in particular, see a win-win?

Let's see, lots of jobs at a high-security facility that will lock the Cascade community out of the grounds and throw away the key. PenMar gets the credit for economically redeveloping the base, and as a bonus they stick it to the Cascade Committee for being such a thorn in the side over the years.

To be sure, this deal is not without promise. But it is also not being done without an element of desperation and haste similar to that of the used-washing-machine owner. And after its experience with Role Models Academy, PenMar should know better than anyone that deals cobbled from the stones of desperation are the ones most likely to come crumbling down on their heads.

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