Community center is first piece of Fort Ritchie revitalization

September 27, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

CASCADE -- Even during the lean years after the U.S. Army closed Fort Ritchie, the basketball court on the base was like a beehive.

"It was the center of the community, a hub of activity," said Chuck Fiala of Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) of Columbia, Md., which is redeveloping the Cascade base.

So, as COPT set out on a $256 million revitalization plan, it intentionally worked on the community center first, the company's president and CEO, Randall M. Griffin, said Saturday after a celebration ceremony.

The center, which will open this week, is being called the first piece of the base's transformation. The Army shut down Fort Ritchie in 1998.


COPT has obtained more than 500 acres at Fort Ritchie and proposed a mix of residential and commercial development estimated to create 4,500 jobs over 20 years.

Griffin said the process of closing the base, taking numerous local jobs away and trying to transform it was divisive. When COPT stepped in, people were skeptical, but the thought of a new community center was attractive and agreeable to many, he said.

The project cost $5 million. COPT paid $2.8 million and PenMar Development Corp., the nonprofit organization the state created in 1997 to oversee the conversion of the base to other uses, paid $2.2 million.

At a similar ceremony a year ago, Griffin promised that the 21,000-square-foot center would be ready by July 4.

Instead, Wednesday will be opening day.

The doors of the center were open for a preview Saturday. Hundreds of people stopped in to look around.

A before-and-after photo display showed how far the building had changed.

The gym, fresh and bright, was packed as people watched basketball entertainer Spencer "Spinny" Johnson, who grew up in Poolesville, Md.

Other rooms hold games, crafts and computers. A mirrored fitness center is filled with new exercise equipment and televisions.

Residents of Washington and Frederick counties in Maryland and Franklin and Adams counties in Pennsylvania may use the center. County commissioners from each county were there Saturday and received special basketballs for their support.

A three-month inaugural membership, through Dec. 31, costs $30 for an adult, $10 for a child between 6 and 17 and $75 for a family or household. Children 5 or younger may use the center at no charge if they're with an adult who is a member.

Annual memberships will be sold later.

In his remarks Saturday, George Griffin, the chairman of the PenMar Development Corp. board, acknowledged the lack of progress in recent years.

"That it has taken 10 years to get to this point has been a constant frustration for many of us," said Griffin, who is not related to COPT's president and CEO.

Achieving the next milestones should take far less time, he said.

Randall Griffin said the community center is the first building in Washington County to meet energy-efficiency standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council. Other buildings in COPT's redevelopment of the base will do the same, he said.

COPT's plan includes 673 single- and multifamily homes and 1.7 million square feet of office and retail space, according to a marketing packet for the project, which is called Fort Ritchie at Cascade.

"It's great, if they can really develop it and get it going again," said Gene Wolfe, 78, of Greencastle, Pa.

Wolfe, a retired civil engineer technician, said he worked at the base for about 29 years.

While looking at a map of the project, Wolfe noted that the community center room in which he was standing used to be the site of a handball court. He said he put out the contract for that court while he worked at Fort Ritchie.

Currently, the YMCA in Waynesboro, Pa., is the closest fitness facility for some people who will use the new center, said Nina Rouzer of Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., a community member on the center's board. Others must travel further.

Rouzer predicted that the center will be a hit.

"Everybody up here will love it," she said.

HCC growing in Cascade

In each of the three semesters since Hagerstown Community College returned to the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base, enrollment has gone up.

The college started up again in Cascade midway through the spring 2008 semester with about 10 students.

Enrollment rose to about 50 in the summer semester, said Emily Hollins, an HCC recruitment and operations coordinator.

Now, in the fall semester, there are about 80 students, HCC President Guy Altieri said Saturday during a ceremony commemorating the college's renewed presence at the base.

Half are from Maryland, half from Pennsylvania, he said.

HCC's reemergence in Cascade comes as Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) of Columbia, Md., works on a $256 million plan to revitalize the base.

COPT's William Hofmann said HCC was at Fort Ritchie when he started working there more than 25 years ago.

When the U.S. Army shut down the base in 1998, HCC left, too.

HCC, whose main campus is on Robinwood Drive near Hagerstown, is using a brick building of about 3,000 square feet on the base.

It has four classrooms, including a computer lab. There also is an office, a kitchen and a lounge.

Hofmann said COPT would like to see HCC grow more.

"Nothing would please us more than to have to lease more space," he said.

State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said Washington County didn't value education when manufacturing and agricultural jobs anchored the local economy, but that is changing.

"I think we're seeing something really good happen before our eyes in terms of education," he said.

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