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In the hand

A REIT

Ritchie at point where any decision is good decision

August 01, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

After seven years of unsuccessful signal calling, the PenMar Development Corp. team finally discovered something in the playbook that worked:

Punt.

When the offense can't do the job, pin your opponent back inside his 20 then wash your hands of it and walk away. PenMar did this when it decided not to redevelop the old Fort Ritchie Army base, but to sell it outright.

You can't say that PenMar did the right thing. You can't say PenMar did the wrong thing. But you can say that PenMar did something, which after seven years of wheel-spinning is kind of refreshing on its own.

Yes, the dreamers among us had visions of a shining Columbia on a hill, a planned residential/business center where children would laugh and fly kites on the shores of the old fort's lakes, and families would eat picnics amid the trees and unexploded ordnance and every morning mom and dad would wake up and ride their bikes to work for a progressive, high-tech company that offers free day care and where no one wears a tie.

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Instead, we get a colorless, faceless REIT, a real estate investment trust that seems to have a vampire's love of sunlight and openness, in the sense that a woman representing the firm hung up on a reporter who had the audacity to ask what the company had in mind for Ritchie.

PenMar sold the land for $5 million to $9 million, depending on how many jobs are created. Those who say that PenMar "gave away the farm" and sold the 638 acres and historic buildings for millions less than the property is worth are clearly correct.

But then, the county didn't pay anything for Fort Ritchie in the first place. And now this land will be taxable, where it wasn't before. Plus, Corporate Office Properties Trust will pump another $7.5 million into the old fort's crumbling infrastructure.

COPT got a deal, no question. But for seven years, PenMar had been one slapstick farce after another. At least now the property will be in the hands of professionals who make their decisions based on facts, not on personalities and petty, small-city squabbles - that counts as progress.

COPT is the classic bird in the hand. County Commissioner Greg Snook said it as well as anyone: "It's not a perfect agreement, but I think it comes a long way from where we were years ago."

Remember, more than a decade ago, the City of Hagerstown chose between two developers for the future of the old Baldwin House hotel. One plan called for a jazzy mix of uppercrust condos, theaters and commercial outlets. The second plan called for plain old white-bread office space with some shops on the first floor.

The city was wowed by the sexier plan, and I was too. And for another 10 years the Baldwin House sat empty, a victim of vision without financing.

Of course the Baldwin eventually blossomed into something better than office space and there's a chance that in time a better use would have come along for Ritchie.

But here the citizens' Cascade Committee bears some responsibility for pressuring PenMar into an unwinable dilemma. PenMar was strongly criticized by the community for failing to act with more alacrity; but at the same time, Cascade wanted to hold out for the perfect developer and the perfect development.

After seven years of criticism for inactivity, Cascade can hardly be surprised that PenMar leaped at the first chance to sell the property outright, giving short shrift to competing interests. In all likelihood, PenMar was tired of being a whipping boy.

COPT need only do a couple of things to make life easier for everyone. It should genuinely respect and genuinely listen to the people of Cascade. And it should allow the community at least partial access to the base to enjoy its history and recreational opportunities.

That's pretty much it. So simple, yet for seven years, PenMar could never noodle it through. PenMar viewed the people of Cascade as hayseeds and arrogantly barged ahead in papa-knows-best fashion, even refusing to include a resident on its board. By the time PenMar learned that Cascade had its share, not of hayseeds, but of sophisticated, government-savvy sharpshooters, the board was too stubborn to compromise.

For the sake of everyone's sanity, COPT cannot make the same mistake. It can't come in, claim "national security" or something, and lock the fort up tighter than, well, a fort. PenMar treated Cascade residents like children. All COPT need do is treat them like adults.

In exchange, the Cascade Committee would be wise to back off the accelerator a bit. It can challenge how the selection was made - there are serious questions of why COPT was chosen over at least two other companies with no competing bids and no competing proposals laid out on the table. But it would be truly bad form to pillory COPT itself without giving the company a reasonable opportunity to explain its plans. And there has to be give and take. Cascade can't go sour on COPT if the company won't comply with 100 percent of Cascade's wishes.

And speaking of wishes, it is likely wishful thinking that the community and COPT can come together and, without rancor or secrecy, work out a plan that is agreeable to everyone. But if that happened, the $9 million COPT is paying for the base will seem like $90 million to the rest of us down here in the valley.

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