Officials divided on how ownership change affects Fort Ritchie

July 24, 2012|By DON AINES |

CASCADE — The redevelopment of Fort Ritchie appears to be back to square one with the transfer of the former military base from Corporate Office Properties Trust back to PenMar Development Corp.

“I would describe it as a new start,” said Dan Pheil, the chairman of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission. As the commission develops a comprehensive economic development plan for the county “the Fort Ritchie property will certainly be listed as an asset,” he said.

The Army closed the fort in 1998 as a result of a 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission decision. Since then, plans to redevelop the 600-acre base have been largely stymied, including a lawsuit filed several years ago by two area property owners and environmental clean-up issues.

Franklin County (Pa.) Area Development Corp. President L. Michael Ross likened the transfer to going back to 1998 again.

“This has arguably been one of the most difficult transfers and reuses in the BRAC process for any year,” Ross said. “Redevelopment at Fort Ritchie has effectively yet to begin.”

“We had an able and willing developer in COPT,” Ross said, but the lawsuit and environmental issues have not been resolved, though 17 years have elapsed since the BRAC Commission announced its decision to close the fort.

“We expected lots of good things to happen when COPT announced it was acquiring the facility” in 2006, Ross said. Since then, however, Franklin and Adams counties in Pennsylvania and Washington and Frederick counties in Maryland have had to move on.

“We’ve effectively absorbed the loss of Fort Ritchie” since its closing, Ross said. “We accepted it and we moved on.”

Washington County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham, who is on the PenMar Redevelopment Corp. board, disagreed with the idea that progress at and around the fort has been wiped out.

“So much has been done,” she said, mentioning the growth of the community center and renovations at Cascade Elementary School as examples.

Callaham said some buildings at the fort could be turned into data centers.

In the past, U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., has said federal government agencies could use the fort property as a good “continuation of operations” site if their main offices in the Washington, D.C., area were attacked or otherwise failed.

He said in 2003 that representatives from the National Security Agency, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the CIA and Congress were among those that talked about using the land for part of their operations or as a backup.

Callaham said Tuesday that it might be a tougher sell to expand government than to recruit private industry, but “everyone’s in the mix. There’s not any one focus. It’s going to be a multifaceted look at what’s out there in the economy and what might flourish at Fort Ritchie.”

“The toughest issue out there, whether it’s Fort Ritchie or whatever, is the uncertainty,” said Pheil, who is president and CEO of Cinetic Landis Corp. in Washington County. The economy remains fragile, restraining economic development and job creation, he said.

The strategic plan could help point the way to the best reuse of the fort, whether for government agencies and related contractors or the hospitality industry, Pheil said. A warehousing and distribution hub is probably out of the question due to its somewhat remote location, he said.

“It’s a beautiful property, though a bit out of the way,” Pheil said.

If the BRAC process was supposed to cut federal government costs, that belief was based more on financial models than reality, Ross said. Letterkenny Army Depot near Chambersburg, Pa., was downsized by almost 1,500 acres in another 1995 BRAC decision, but plenty of federal, state and local government money has gone into the redevelopment effort since then, he said.

Seventeen years later, hundreds of acres at the depot have yet to be transferred to the Letterkenny Industrial Development Authority (LIDA), he said.

The business park run by LIDA has helped create hundreds of private and public jobs, but its biggest tenant remains the federal government, Ross said.

Staff Writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

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