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PenMar signs deal to sell former fort

July 27, 2004|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

CASCADE - After seven years of trying to redevelop the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base, the PenMar Development Corp. on Monday signed an agreement to sell the 638-acre site for an undisclosed price to a Columbia, Md., business developer.

"The whole area around here should be jumping up and down cheering," PenMar board Chairman George Griffin said of the sale agreement with Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) during a press conference at the base. "This (base) has been almost dead for six to seven years now."

But not everyone was enthusiastic about the sale agreement. Two of 10 PenMar board members and a more than 200-member residents group in Cascade opposed selling the former base. They questioned whether selling the property was the best move for the area.

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"I think we're giving away the store," said PenMar board member Ron Sulchek, who also described the sale agreement as a "fire sale."

He said he thought the agreement allows COPT to develop the base with little oversight or accountability in creating jobs.

Sulchek said PenMar shouldn't sell the base until it's certain COPT will create a specific number of jobs.

Randall M. Griffin, president and chief operating officer of COPT, said COPT would create more jobs at Fort Ritchie than were there when it was an active Army base. Randall Griffin, who is not related to George Griffin, said there were about 1,200 jobs at the former base when it shut down in 1998.

PenMar was created by the state in 1997 to redevelop Fort Ritchie and restore jobs that were lost when the Army closed the base. Since that time, PenMar has been able to attract and retain one major tenant - a masonry training center.

Randall Griffin did not say whether the training center, International Masonry Institute, would be included in COPT's development plans. He said he has not been in contact with training center officials but said the school asked to be contacted if a sales agreement was signed.

George Griffin and Randall Griffin declined to say what COPT's specific plans are for the former base.

They refused to reveal the selling price of the property, saying the price structure was complicated. George Griffin said the sale price would be released in the next couple of weeks.

PenMar Executive Director Rich Rook said the sales contract would be available later in the week.

Randall Griffin said the cost of the base consisted of its sale price, the amount of money COPT will be required to contribute under the agreement to improve such things as roads and sewer, and other costs of base upgrades.

The sale price might go down, he said, if COPT creates a certain number of jobs in a certain time frame.

Randall Griffin said COPT's development plan would span 10 to 15 years.

The Army must first transfer the land to PenMar before PenMar can sell it to COPT. Rook said he hopes that happens in 90 days.

Randall Griffin said COPT plans to hold meetings with the Cascade residents to hear their ideas about the future of the former base.

"It basically is a giveaway of the base," Washington County Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said of the sale contract between PenMar and COPT. Wivell also is a PenMar board member.

Wivell said he didn't think selling the property was the charge PenMar was given by the state. If that were the case, the Army could have just sold the land on its own.

"Why did we even have to exist?" Wivell said.

Wivell said he thought the better way to spur economic development at the former base would be to partner with a master developer. PenMar still would have oversight and control over what happens at the site, he said.

Despite the concerns, Wivell said he hopes COPT succeeds in its redevelopment efforts.

Karl Weissenbach, director of the Cascade Committee, said PenMar should have gone through a competitive bid process to ensure it received the best selling price possible.

"The problem is, we will probably never know if this is the best deal," Weissenbach said.

He also was concerned that the jobs COPT would bring to the former base would be transferred from other areas rather than being filled by local residents.

"It looks like COPT can do whatever they want to without any squawking about it," Weissenbach said.

Weissenbach also said Cascade residents have been kept in the dark about COPT's plans for the former base and whether the community would be able to use parts of the property.

"Is it a bright day in Cascade? We can't answer that question until formal (plans) have been verified," Weissenbach said. "The community is always the last to know."




What is Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT)?

The company is a self-managed real estate investment trust that focuses on the ownership, management, leasing acquisition and development of suburban office properties mainly in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The company owns 132 office properties totaling more than 10.9 million rentable square feet. Corporate Office Properties Trust's common shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol OFC. More information about the company can be found at www.copt.com on the Web.

- Source: PenMar Development Corp.

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