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Fort was placed on fast track to nowhere

July 09, 2005|by Dee Mayberry

Several years back, a Boonsboro woman published a newsletter titled The Western Maryland Voice. Its purpose was to export fine values and common sense of this area down state when things seemed to be spinning out of control. The Voice was well received, and she enjoyed writing it.

In time, a federal group called the BRAC Commission began looking to close "unnecessary" military bases. Fort Ritchie was among those slated for a BRAC look-see. Fort Detrick in Frederick appeared safe.

The editor of The Voice began researching the needs and wants of people in Western Maryland. She looked at long unemployment lines in Washington County.

Aware that Ritchie had a long history, plus 2,200 jobs, she went down to Frederick to ask leaders there if they had any problem if Ritchie, as well as Detrick, stayed open. The answer was an emphatic "NO." Ritchie employed a lot of Frederick people also. She talked to local Hagerstown businesses that had done extensive work to keep Ritchie in good shape.

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She visited Cascade and learned the school there needed enrollments by children of Ritchie workers, that Ritchie people had bought houses in the area and that families used the clubhouse and the lake. She learned about the connection with the high security facility at Site R and value of Ritchie's closeness to Camp David.

There seemed no way around the fact that Fort Ritchie was a uniquely valuable asset - in jobs, historical import and stability for the community around it. The Western Maryland Voice went to bat big time, fighting to keep the fort off the federal closure list. It was much like members of Congress today who pull out all the stops to save important, useful bases in their areas.

The Voice contacted Congress and got a big surprise. "That is up to local people," she was told by one involved member. Closures were a federal initiative. What, she wondered, was Congress elected to do? Were they not getting a salary to speak for local people?

Her publication found there was another voice out of Boonsboro. This voice was that of a non-elected person who advised a large gathering that he had helped to "fast-track" the closing of Fort Ritchie. He took bragging rights for contacts well used - success in threatening 2,200 jobs with possible relocation of a group of long-time Washington County people to other work someplace in the West.

The Voice questioned him. Was he a bag of wind, a loudmouth? The editor decided he was not. Rather, he planned to help set up a redevelopment group to bring business to the unused fort.

After a long struggle, the editor gave up in disgust. She folded the Western Maryland Voice. Like her Nez Perce Indian ancestor who threw in the towel attempting to hold onto land for his people, she took to herself his long-ago words, "I will fight no more forever." For some years after Ritchie closed and began to decay, she fought nothing in Washington County.

In a recent front-page story, The Herald-Mail leads with the words, "Residents are tired of Ritchie battling." A quote from Gary Muller, owner of Flohr True Value Lumber Co. in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., hits the nail on the head. He said Ritchie issues are all about jobs. He is speaking about the present series of lawsuits and arguments but Ritchie has been about jobs from Day One.

From the start, the fort was not a prime redevelopment opportunity. The situation has been a mess from the beginning. The character of the mess has changed from time to time, and today the issue is land value and sale price. Earlier it was a different this or that. Only one good thing has come out of the flap: The people of Cascade have preserved their little school - still waiting for all the children that "redevelopment" promised.

The current favorite term among newly elected officials in this area seems to be "move forward." Among the County Commissioners and the new Hagerstown City Council, lessons can be learned from the boast about fast-tracking Fort Ritchie.

In particular, the City Council (the ruling body in Hagerstown - not the mayor) needs to do its moving forward with caution and foresight. In county and city elected bodies, decisions about sewers, water, hospitals, rezoning need to be examined with great care. Nobody likes foot-dragging, lawsuits, etc.

However, people of good will can use foresight, can look to consequences, identify later pitfalls without taking years to do it, because "big pictures" can emerge in a quiet evening or two.

In all things, sound, independent thinking by every individual elected to office is vital. With tough issues on official agendas there lingers memories of Ritchie and the question: Can we afford any more thoughtless fasttracking?

Dee Mayberry is a Boonsboro resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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