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Serbs visit Ritchie to learn about transitioning military facilities

April 13, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS
  • Serbian language translator Ljubinka Ruzica interprets remarks by Washington County Commissioners President John Barr Tuesday. A delegation of Serb leaders toured Fort Ritchie and discusssed transforming military bases to public use.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer,

Slide show: Serbian leaders visit Fort Ritchie

CASCADE -- A group of government officials from Serbia visited the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army Base near Cascade on Tuesday to study the process of converting surplus military property to other uses.

With its remote location and mountainous terrain, Fort Ritchie is similar to many military facilities in Serbia that government officials would like to see redeveloped, said John J. Hentschel, a Maryland real estate expert who is leading a weeklong study tour for the group.

"I think Fort Ritchie represents an example of how you transition from surplus military property in a challenging location to an active economic development opportunity that can draw people to the area, and that's what we're trying to teach them," Hentschel said.

Fort Ritchie was closed in 1998 and transferred in 2006 to PenMar Development Corp, a state-sponsored redevelopment authority, which then sold it to a private developer interested in creating a business and residential development.

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The study tour was organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development's Municipal Economic Growth Activity program, which is helping local governments in Serbia foster economic growth and employment by creating a business environment where the local private sector can flourish, Hentschel said.

"What we're trying to show them is how to take a surplus military property and walk it through all of the processes, from how do you negotiate a deal, how do you value the property, to how do you get it to be a functioning economic development force in the local community," he said.

The visiting delegation included mayors of three cities in Serbia, a representative of Serbian President Boris Tadic, the head of the Serbian military's infrastructure department, local economic development and planning officials, and officials responsible for appraising the military properties, Hentschel said.

Dori Nipps, executive director of PenMar Development Corp., said the Serbian officials were interested in how the federal and local governments worked together on the Fort Ritchie transfer.

"You have to understand that they were always run by a military-type government, and now they are a democratic government, so they first need to learn that it's OK for governments to work together -- federal, state and local," Nipps said.

The Serbian government wanted the local governments to pay for the military properties, but the local governments cannot afford to do so, she said.

"So their question is, 'How can we get these properties as a local government, how can we redevelop them when we don't have any money?' and that's where the private industry comes in," Nipps said. "And I think that's been a challenge for them because they're not used to private industries. Capitalism is not in their makeup."

William Hofmann, senior property and environmental services manager for Corporate Office Properties Trust, the private developer that bought the Fort Ritchie property, said the process was not an easy one, whether the property in question was in the United States or Serbia.

"We don't have all the answers," he said. "We're not there yet. We haven't begun, really, to develop the base to its fullest."

The Fort Ritchie redevelopment project has been on hold since November, when a federal judge ordered work stopped due to a lawsuit over the project's environmental impact.

Hofmann said COPT hoped to have that matter resolved by the end of the year.

The Serbian study tour was to include visits to several other sites in Maryland including Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and the Bel Air Armory in Bel Air, Md.

Tuesday's visit included a tour of the Fort Ritchie property, a luncheon with the Washington County Commissioners, presentations from PenMar and COPT officials, and a question-and-answer period.

After the visit, the Serbian group was scheduled to attend a crab feed for dinner, Nipps said.

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