New vision for former Fort Richie creates 'rallying point' of resources, people and community support

August 10, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE |
  • Byron Koste with The Counselors of Real Estate Consulting Corps spoke to the public Friday morning at the Fort Ritchie Community Center about possible future uses for Fort Ritchie. The event was sponsored by the PenMar Development Corp.
By Joe Crocetta / Staff Photographer

CASCADE, Md. — To successfully redevelop the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base in Cascade, the PenMar Development Corp. will need to start thinking — and operating — more like a real estate developer, according to a team of consultants.

About 30 people, including several local, Washington County and state officials, attended a Friday morning meeting at the Fort Ritchie Community Center to see a summary presentation of a study being completed by a team of six experienced real estate consultants from all over the nation.

“I’m really excited. And there’s a lot of community people here, too,” PenMar Executive Director Dori J. Nipps said after the presentation. “I’m really pleased about that. It’s important to this community that something positive happens here on the property.”

The team of volunteer consultants from The Counselors of Real Estate Consulting Corps spent about a week conducting interviews and collecting market data in preparing its study, which identifies strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the successful redevelopment of the 600-acre mountainside property.

“It’s a wonderful location, beautiful setting, and that’s an attribute. It’s an asset,”  consultant Jerry Turner said. “And our goal really is to help PenMar make the most of its attributes to generate interest that creates development, and ultimately creates economic development.”

Strengths of the site listed in the report included a lack of outstanding debt, appropriate zoning, and community and political support, while some weaknesses noted were historic easement limitations, aging sewer infrastructure and its distance from metro areas.

Consultant Byron Koste, who facilitated the team’s presentation, suggested that PenMar needs a new “structure for success,” including hiring a new project manager to oversee the “real estate” side of redevelopment efforts. It should also reconsider the structure of the agency’s 16-member board of directors and other committees, he said.

Nipps said the information and expertise on real estate development that the group brought forth was “eye-opening.”

“I think our thought process needs to change, and to look at ourselves differently moving forward that we are a real estate developer,” she said. “We’re here to sell land, build buildings and make something happen here.... I get it now.”

Other immediate issues for PenMar in its redevelopment efforts should be to address water and sewer issues, start land-use concept planning and reach out to local and state government entities that can assist in the effort, Koste said.

After the presentation, which lasted nearly an hour, numerous people took part in a 45-minute question-and-answer session with the consultants.

One Washington County business official asked what other local agencies should be doing to help efforts in the remote corner of the county.

Although one of the consultants credited the “massive brain power” of critical thinkers in Washington County, another said he found it difficult to figure out which economic development agency served as the county’s lead group.

Consultant James Olin said when site selectors for large companies find it difficult to find the appropriate point of contact, they simply “check you off the list” and move on.

“Get your act together with that,” Olin said.

The former Army base, which closed in 1998, was returned to PenMar by Corporate Office Properties Trust, or COPT, which paid $5 million for the property in 2006.

Another $4 million was owed to PenMar by 2016, but COPT’s plans to redevelop the land stalled due to a lawsuit and a faltering economy.

One person questioned the consultants after the presentation about how the negative stigma of a failed project could be overcome in the new effort.

“Anytime something is tried and is not successful ... there’s a tendency in human nature to worry about the past,” Turner said. “... The new vision creates a rallying point” of resources, people and community support for the new project.

Asked what she sees for the property in the next five years, Nipps said she hopes to have a restaurant at Lakeside Hall, add some small retail businesses in the historic buildings on the property and host some community events, such as a wine festival or live music.

“I think it’s more in the evaluation stage over the next 60 to 90 days, and try to get someone in that (project manager) position,” Nipps said.

Nipps said the consultants weren’t paid for their work, but PenMar agreed to pay for their travel expenses, meals and hotel accommodations up to $35,000.

A full report will be delivered by the consultants in the next 60 days.

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