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Residents are tired of Ritchie battling

June 22, 2005|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

CASCADE

daniels@herald-mail.com

Three Cascade-area businessmen want to stop the bickering, lawsuits and injunctions impeding the sale of the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base because they think the sale will create jobs and reinvigorate their depressed economy.

"We lost the jobs that were here and it's like everyone left town and it's just become stagnant. There's no positive to replace those jobs," said Greg DeLauter, a Cascade resident and owner of GT's Handi Mart. "We're just trying to say, 'Hear our voice.' We're just trying to do what we were trying to do from the beginning."

The business owners began circulating a petition late last week to gather support to let the sale proceed. The men have collected more than 400 signatures, DeLauter said.

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"We really feel it is time to get things moving at Fort Ritchie," said Gary Muller, owner of the Flohr True Value Lumber Co. on Monterey Lane in nearby Blue Ridge Summit, Pa. "The first summer that the base closed, in 1998, we probably took a 15 to 20 percent loss in our business. For us, we have found other avenues of business and we've survived, but some small businesses here on the mountain are suffering."

PenMar Development Corp. was created by the state in 1997 to redevelop the base, which the Army shut down in 1998.

PenMar agreed to sell the 638-acre base to Corporate Office Properties Trust of Columbia, Md., for $9 million in July 2004. The price will drop to $5 million if COPT creates 1,400 jobs over nine years. The sale is on hold because of a federal injunction barring the Army from transferring the land to PenMar.

Two Cascade property owners last month filed suit seeking a second injunction blocking the sale on the grounds that PenMar significantly undervalued the property in its sale to COPT and failed to seek competitive bids from other parties. The property owners - Vienna, Va., resident Jim Lemon and Cascade resident Robin Biser - alleged PenMar, COPT and the Army "conspired to implement an illegitimate and unlawful redevelopment plan at Fort Ritchie," according to court documents.

DeLauter and the other businessmen claim the town has suffered doubly: first, with the closure of the base; and second, from the loss of base workers who patronized their local restaurants, stores and gas stations.

Muller said most of the objectors to the Fort Ritchie sale have lost sight of what is important for Cascade residents - the jobs the community lost after the base closed.

"This was never about the sale price of Fort Ritchie, this was about jobs. We want the jobs back," Muller said. "We need it done now. We don't need another four to five years of lawsuits. We were really hearing this from our customers, and they were really saying this has gone on too long. This is ridiculous."

PenMar board member William J. Wivell, also vice president of the Washington County Commissioners, said while he would like to see the redevelopment plan move forward, the PenMar board is concerned about some issues surrounding the sale, including the price. He said the matter rests in the hands of the court.

"I probably, more than anyone, want to see a successful base redevelopment," Wivell said. "There's just a lot of issues there."

Muller said the petitions will be available at their stores at least through the weekend and will be forwarded to the Commissioners as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland senators.

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