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Fort Ritchie has storied history

June 30, 2008|By ANGELICA ROBERTS
(Page 2 of 2)

What was to become Fort Ritchie was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Strategic Communications Command. The continental U.S. headquarters of the operation was moved to Fort Ritchie in 1971, The Herald-Mail reported.

Fort Ritchie and its personnel supported the Alternate Joint Communications Center east of the fort in Pennsylvania under Raven Rock Mountain. Known as Site R, or the underground Pentagon, it was a standby command center for use in case of national emergency.

The once top-secret Underground Pentagon contained five 60-foot buildings, and within each building were office spaces, dining facilities, a hospital, dental clinic and chapel, The Herald-Mail reported.

End of an era

With 2,200 civilian and military employees stationed at the base, Fort Ritchie was Washington County's second-largest employer in 1983.

In 1995, about 5,000 jobs were cut at the fort, the same year the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, recommended that Fort Ritchie be one of the military installations closed under its downsizing plan.

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In 1998, Fort Ritchie was closed.

On Oct. 5, 2006, the U.S. Army transferred ownership of Fort Ritchie to PenMar Development Corp., which was created in 1997 to oversee the conversion of the former base.

PenMar Development Corp. promptly sold the property to COPT, a Columbia, Md., company.

COPT purchased the approximately 600-acre base for $5 million, with the understanding the price would climb to $9 million if COPT doesn't create 1,400 jobs over nine years, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

The transaction came after eight years of arguments, resignations from the PenMar board of directors and legal battles surrounding the base's transfer from the Army to PenMar.

Today, COPT is converting Fort Ritchie into a a mixed-use development.

In February, COPT representatives met with the surrounding community to give a 10- to-15-year plan for Fort Ritchie. Those plans include a community center, offices, and residential and retail amenities. During the first 15 years of development, COPT planned to invest $256 million into the property.

The community center is scheduled to be completed on Sept. 1.

"We are also completing the demolition and preparing the development for retail office and housing," Hofmann said. "Currently we have 94 town homes," some of which already are occupied.

The March/April edition of Maryland Life magazine published a list of "Endangered Historic Sites," and Fort Ritchie was among them. In the May/June edition, a letter was published from PenMar and COPT in response to the story. They said they were "working together to preserve the historic buildings at Fort Ritchie."

A Herald-Mail story published on March 15 quoted Chuck Fiala, senior vice president of COPT, as saying that the former fort's parade grounds are protected as part of the design guidelines that govern the Camp Ritchie Historic District. Those guidelines were established in 1997 by the U.S. Army, the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Maryland Historical Trust and PenMar Development Corp., he said.

COPT is investing $5 million in a new community center, which will be built on the footprint of the old gym, about half of which was torn down. Planners intend to use the parade grounds for recreational purposes, such as softball and soccer fields, Fiala said in March.

"We are balancing historic preservation and struggling to find economic viability of some 64 (to) 68 old historic stone structures that up to this point have been left to rot," Fiala said.

While many might see the modern buildings and new developments, Michaels said he still sees the history behind it all.

"When I first got to Camp Ritchie, I thought of it as just another nice, small Army post. I had already been to a number of posts," Michaels said. "But I like to think our contribution at Ritchie may have actually saved lives."

Information for this story came from a number of sources, including a 1983 series of stories about Fort Ritchie published by The Herald-Mail. The newspaper noted that information for that series came from a number of places, including Fort Ritchie's historical collection, the book "Maryland in World War II," published by the Maryland Historical Society, and other sources.

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