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Report: History an important part of Washington County's economic development future

Airport, former army base, Woodmont Lodge identified as significant in strategic plan

March 03, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • A strategic plan for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission and County Industrial Foundation, or CHIEF, calls for expanding the commercial and recreational use of Woodmont Lodge near Hancock.
File photo

Hagerstown Regional Airport and the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base both have a place in Washington County’s history, and officials at each facility want them to play a part in the county’s economic future.

Along with those facilities, Woodmont Lodge, which has hosted presidents, was identified in the report as a potential for upscale lodging.

The 665-acre airport is identified as a “primary opportunity area” in the economic development strategic plan developed for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission and County Industrial Foundation, or CHIEF. The report identified the airport as a hub for further development of aircraft and aviation technologies and services.

Hagerstown has an aviation history dating to World War I, when Giuseppe Bellanca built two aircraft while working for a city manufacturer.

In 1928, the Kreider-Reisner Aircraft Co. purchased 60 acres on the site of what is now Hagerstown Regional Airport. The airport and tenant companies expanded over the decades, particularly with the arrival of Fairchild in the 1930s and the onset of World War II. While Fairchild is gone, the airport continues to attract aviation-related businesses.

Hagerstown has the second-longest public-use runway in Maryland at 7,000 feet, behind Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Urbanomics President Kenneth Creveling said at a Jan. 26 public presentation of the economic development strategic plan. While most people think of airports as places to board flights, Creveling said it has the potential to expand its aircraft servicing, training and technology base.

“The number we’ve been using is somewhere around 600,” Airport Director Phil Ridenour said when asked about employment at the airport. However, the Maryland Aviation Administration conducted a recent survey and he said the figure could be considerably higher.

“I don’t think people realize what a job generator the airport is,” Ridenour said.

It is home to 18 businesses either on or near airport grounds, the largest of which are defense contractor Sierra Nevada and Rider Jet Center, the airport’s fixed-base operator, he said.

Several other aircraft service and maintenance companies also operate at the airfield, Ridenour said.

The strategic plan also notes the close proximity of other large employers, such as Citi and Lehigh Phoenix, and the airport’s capacity to expand into facilities such as the former Fairchild Aircraft plant, marketed as the Top Flight Air Industrial Park.

‘Broad mix of industries’

The airport and surrounding area are “suitable for a broad mix of industries, including business and financial services, information technology and advanced manufacturing,” the strategic plan said.

Ridenour recently told the Washington County Board of Commissioners that the airport has contracted with AvPorts in Dulles, Va., to develop a comprehensive marketing plan aimed at attracting more aviation-related commercial and industrial development and additional air service. The study is supposed to be completed by May, he said.

Allegiant Air runs flights to Florida from Hagerstown and Ridenour met last week with airline officials to discuss adding more flights to more destinations, such as Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Sun Air International runs commuter flights to Dulles International Airport, he said.

Ongoing projects include the construction of three 40-by-40-foot hangars for general aviation aircraft storage and an 18,000-square-foot office, classroom and workshop facility for the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, Ridenour said.

PIA trains students to receive Federal Aviation Administration airframe and powerplant certifications, said Steven Sabold, the director of admissions for the institute’s four campuses. As baby boomers are reaching retirement age, there will be a great demand for aircraft technicians to replace them, Sabold said recently.

Replacing the air traffic control tower should be a priority project, the Urbanomics report said. The expansion of the main runway several years ago, new tower height specifications and limited views of the airfield “all contribute to the need for a new tower,” the report said.

“There’s some problems with the existing tower,” Ridenour said.

It was erected in 1974, but is actually older, having been disassembled and shipped here from an airport in Florida, he said.

“It has some of the high-end equipment in it, but it’s old and they’ve made as many modifications as they can,” Ridenour said.

The tower is owned, operated and maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration, which uses contract employees to staff it, he said.

Ridenour told the commissioners recently that federal funding will be a critical issue in getting a new tower. A siting study for the tower is scheduled for this year, he said.
 
Fort Ritchie

At one time prior to its closing in 1998, Fort Ritchie, in the extreme eastern end of Washington County, provided hundreds of military and civilian jobs to people in four counties in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The 591-acre former military communications and intelligence facility is owned and managed by PenMar Development Corp., which once again owns the land after it was turned over by Corporate Office Properties Trust, or COPT, last year. COPT paid PenMar $2 million of the $4 million it still owed on the property, which it bought in 2006 to redevelop as a complex of office buildings and housing.

“It is anticipated that Fort Ritchie will be developed over a 10- to 15-year time frame, with the intent of creating 4,500 jobs,” COPT in a press release when it bought the property.

That never became a reality, as a 2005 lawsuit by two area property owners resulted in a federal judge ordering an environmental review. The recession and following slow economic recovery also stopped the process.

PenMar took possession of the fort when it was closed, said Executive Director Dori Nipps. COPT agreed to pay $9 million for the site — $5 million upfront and $4 million to be paid at a later date.

“Many uses for Fort Ritchie have been discussed and proposed, but no consensus yet has been reached on the future of the property,” the economic development strategic plan said. “Land uses considered to date include mixed-use residential community, secure data center and resort/recreation facility,” the report said. It also suggested the fort could be a support facility for nearby Camp David.

“Fort Ritchie is a unique property with a marketable and sustainable future for the right use and user,” the report said.

What made it a good pick for a military intelligence base — being in a remote area outside the “blast zone” of a nuclear attack on Washington, D.C. — could make it less desirable for commercial development.

“Fort Ritchie is different,” Nipps said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter property next to an interstate.”

It is, however, an attractive piece of land, Nipps said, featuring two lakes and an expansive former parade ground; an officers club and restaurant now operating as an events center; an independently operated community center; 96 housing units; and a number of historic stone buildings constructed during the early part of the 20th century.

It also comes with its own water system, cell tower, new electric substation, and there is a nearby county wastewater treatment plant with substantial excess treatment capacity — all attractive amenities for prospective developers, Nipps said.

Representatives from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development recently toured the property and Secretary Dominick Murray is expected there in April, Nipps said.

“The state is a big player for us,” Nipps said. “We need to make sure they are aware of what we have” and can participate in marketing the site.

PenMar has been in contact with a firm to conduct an assessment of the property and a marketing analysis, Nipps said. An important issue is whether to try to market the fort as one property or subdivide it, she said.

During the Jan. 26 presentation, Creveling said it might be worth considering contacting COPT to “pick their brains on what their thinking was” is deciding to turn the property back to PenMar.

Nipps said COPT’s decision was pretty straightforward.

“COPT wrote off $27 million that they spent on the property and they left because they decided they could not make their redevelopment plan work,” Nipps said.

COPT’s redevelopment plan is probably not a valid plan under current circumstances, she said.

Lodge hosted presidents

The report calls for expanding the commercial and recreational use of Woodmont Lodge near Hancock.

The rustic lodge has hosted six presidents and other luminaries, including Babe Ruth. Today, it is shared by the Izaak Walton League and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, an arrangement that appears to limit use by the general public.

The strategic plan recommended the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the EDC meet with representatives of the DNR and the Izaak Walton League to pursue opportunities to use the lodge as a retreat, upscale lodging and base “for field and stream activities for which it was famous decades ago.”

The lodge has 24 beds and is similar to a dorm setting with bathrooms at the end of the halls, according to an email from Fort Frederick State Park Manager Angie Hummer. The building is not air-conditioned, she said.

The lodge is available to groups that have environmental or conservation agendas from April 1 through Sept. 30, but is not available for parties, weddings or family reunions, due to its historic nature, Hummer said.

The Izaak Walton League has exclusive use of the 1,400 acres it leases from the Department of Natural Resources from Oct. 1 to March 31, with the department controlling public access the rest of the year, according to the Maryland Park Service website. The other 2,000 acres are open to the public year-round for hunting, hiking and bird-watching, Hummer said.

Other areas of opportunity

The strategic plan also identified other primary opportunity areas:

• Hopewell Valley near the junction of Interstates 70 and 81, which is already home to warehousing and distribution industries such as FedEx Ground and FedEx Freight, Staples, The Home Depot and Tractor Supply Co. Access has become an issue, and the plan calls for extending Halfway Boulevard to Greencastle Pike and Newgate Road to U.S. 40.

• Mount Aetna Technology Park, an area between Hagerstown Community College, Meritus Health and Robinwood Professional Center owned by CHIEF. Capital improvement projects include the extension of Yale Drive from Mount Aetna road through the property to HCC to spur development of high technology and health-related businesses in the park.

• The I-70 Technology Park Area, identified as approximately 1,200 acres between the Sharpsburg Pike and Downsville Pike interchanges of Interstate 70. It includes the largely undeveloped 450-acre Friendship Technology Park on the south side of the interstate and Hagerstown Premium Outlets and the Review and Herald Publishing Association properties on the north side. The plan suggests its development for retail, office, research and light industry, emphasizing information and communications technology and services.

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series of stories on findings and recommendations in the Hagerstown and Washington County Economic Development Strategic Plan on places with potential.

What ran Sunday: Travel and tourism

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