COPT promises old fort will be Cascade's 'heart'

September 22, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

"Communities need a heart. Fort Ritchie, when it's all said and done, will be that."

So said Randall Griffin, president and CEO of Corporate Office Properties Trust, the Columbia, Md.-based real estate investment trust that hopes to turn the old Army base into a new mountaintop community.

Griffin, who visited The Herald-Mail on Monday, was pleasant, but not shy about what he believes COPT will do with the Cascade property. Eventually, he said, his firm will be one of the county's top three taxpayers.

COPT will do it, he said, by creating a total community that will include office space, housing, retail and amenities such as day care.


Griffin's firm has agreed to pay $9 million for the 638-acre property, a price that will drop to $5 million of COPT creates 1,400 jobs there. Some have said that price amounts to a "giveaway," which Griffin said misses the point.

Some of the properties can't be salvaged and will be torn down before any new development takes place, he said. The electrical system in most of the buildings dates from the 1940s and will need an upgrade, he said, as will the sewer system and the road network.

"You really have to look at the whole picture. The price of the ground is irrelevant. We will end up spending hundreds of millions there," he said.

Griffin was vague about what companies might come to the site, saying only that there has been "lots of interest."

The proposal for the first phase of development will be revealed at a public meeting next Monday, he said.

The question of future access to the facility is one that concerns the community. But, Griffin said that even if a super-secret government agency opens a branch there, it's unlikely that the whole base would be closed to the public.

As for access to things such as the gymnasium and other facilities, Griffin said many questions remain, including which nonprofit would operate them and how liability questions would be handled.

Griffin didn't say this, but I will: If someone drowns in the lake as a result of making the old fort a wide-open facility, that person's relatives are going to sue, especially if the defendant is a large and profitable company.

Right now, COPT and the PenMar Development Corp. are considering long-term plans. Griffin said that he's trying to listen to what the community has to say, even as his firm works to satisfy concerns raised by PenMar.

In discussions with some of the people who negotiated this deal, what it comes down to is COPT's track record and whether, based on that, the firm can be trusted to follow through on its promises.

"We have a culture of following through on what we say we're going to do," Griffin said.

That will include talking to employees there, who Griffin said shouldn't fear there will be a full-scale turnover.

"We're going to need a lot of people, a lot more than what's there now," he said, adding that the office staff alone might amount to 30 or 40 people.

If this the beginning of Fort Ritchie's rebirth? Stay tuned.

Tom Altman, president of the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association, took exception to The Herald-Mail's Sept. 16 editorial.

The editorial was written after Joe Kroboth, head of Washington County's Emergency Services Department, dropped his plan to have the county take over supervision of the county's ambulance services.

The editorial said that Kroboth justified the request by noting that while the volunteer group's ambulance supervisor was on a one-month suspension, medics responding to the death of a child didn't get necessary counseling.

The editorial also noted that the Aug. 19 vote of the companies to keep the post under the volunteer group was 13-12 - not a real consensus.

Altman said that the counseling should have been arranged through Kroboth's department and that a dispatcher there has admitted he "dropped the ball."

And, Altman said, if the companies had had all of the facts prior to the vote, two at most would have voted to shift the job to the county.

Our object in writing this editorial was not to downgrade the fire-rescue service, but to express the hope that the recent turmoil in the system is over and that an improved, cooperative relationship between Kroboth's department and Altman's association is developing even as this is being written.

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