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Years after Fort Ritchie opened for redevelopment, base remains shuttered

Real EstateLocal GovernmentGolfRecreational and Sporting Goods IndustryHippodrome TheatreAppalachian National Scenic TrailCamp David

The redevelopment of a former Army post in the Blue Ridge Mountains might not appear to have much in common with the renovation of the historic Hippodrome Theatre on Baltimore's west side.

Spanning roughly 600 acres in Western Maryland's Washington County, Fort Ritchie envelops two small lakes and is speckled with spruce trees and gray stone buildings dating to the 1920s. It's hardly a theater in a gritty part of downtown.

But like the Hippodrome, the installation presents a daunting set of questions — multiple stakeholders with competing interests, historic considerations, a difficult location. Redevelopment also represents the area's best shot to recover the jobs and sense of community lost when the base closed in 1998.

"It's at least as big a challenge," said Robert Boras, a former project manager for the Hippodrome. PenMar Development Corp., a quasi-public agency established by the state in 1997 to find new uses for Fort Ritchie, hired Boras in March to inject new life into those efforts.

PenMar took back ownership of the site from a private developer in 2012, after previous efforts stalled in the face of lawsuits, disagreement over potential occupants and the economic downturn. A recent consultant's report on the property found that market potential for most real estate uses there "barely exists."

With the economy recovering, hopes have turned to the idea of data centers or perhaps a retirement community. Others have proposed, not entirely in jest, bottling the property's spring water.

But there is a lot of ground to make up. The 1998 closure removed an estimated 1,700 jobs from the community near the Pennsylvania state line north of Frederick. Recently constructed buildings languished. A movie theater, golf course and bowling alley shut down. In 2010, the census found that Highfield-Cascade had about 1,100 residents. Fewer than 400 — about half the population over the age of 16 — were employed.

"Most of the people I've talked to have said the same thing: 'We need something and we need it soon,' " said Buck Browning, executive director of the Fort Ritchie Community Center. "That's always tempered with, 'We need what's right.' "

Fort Ritchie is remote, about 90 minutes from Baltimore, down highways and up windy mountain roads that cross nearly unmarked train tracks still used for freight transport. The National Guard set up camp there in 1926, taking land formerly occupied by an ice company. Spies trained at the fort during World War II, and Agent Orange testing later occurred on the site.

The grounds lie between the Camp David presidential retreat and "Site R" — a granite bunker hollowed out of Pennsylvania's Raven Rock mountain and considered the "underground Pentagon." That complex is the "secure, undisclosed location" where former Vice President Dick Cheney retreated after 9/11.

In the region's heyday more than a century ago, nearby towns, including Highfield-Cascade and Blue Ridge Summit in Pennsylvania, served as summertime retreats, dotted with hundreds of wooden boarding houses for weekend visitors who took the train from Washington and Baltimore. The nearby Appalachian Trail and Camp Louise, a girls' sleepaway camp founded in 1922, continue the rustic tradition.

The location, once an advantage, makes redevelopment difficult today.

"You take something like Fort Ritchie, which has a rich history and a lot of people care about it, but when you take a cold, hard look, it is remote, it is rocky and hilly in some places," said Ruth Anne Callaham, a county commissioner who is on the PenMar board and worked on the base for 13 years. "We're trying to swim upstream."

The Army spent nearly a decade cleaning up the base, removing bazooka rockets, mortar rounds and other waste, before transferring it to PenMar in 2006. PenMar immediately sold the base to Columbia-based Corporate Office Properties Trust.

COPT proposed a $300 million transformation of the site with 673 residences and 1.7 million square feet of offices for national security-related firms, creating as many as 4,500 jobs. It invested a reported $28 million, clearing some homes and installing a new electricity substation to power major data centers.

In 2012, after a court ordered further environmental review of the property and the CEO who pushed the project retired, COPT wrote off the investment. It paid PenMar $2 million to clear its debt and returned the property to the agency.

PenMar hired consultants from the Counselors of Real Estate to outline options for the site. The group's report last October found little demand for such property and concluded that COPT's plan for the area was "almost certainly overly ambitious." The report recommended looking at data centers or retirement communities, among other uses.

Since retaking control, PenMar has reopened the property to the public and stepped up efforts to lease its roughly 70 commercial buildings. About 100 families continue to live in duplexes — former Army housing — behind the lakes, which brought PenMar about $683,000 in rent during the fiscal year that ended June 2013, according to tax documents.

The lakeside former officers' club, built in Adirondack style with an open hall, is often rented for weddings.

"We are a property that people are not familiar with [but] it has, I think, great potential for redevelopment on sorts of different levels," said Dori Nipps, PenMar executive director and a former county commissioner. "Besides that, I think it's beautiful here."

Zoning for the property allows for nearly any conceivable use. Boras said mixed-use development remains on the table, but expectations for job creation have dropped to about 2,500, in part a response to some community opposition to the more dense development proposal.

"I do drawings and I pass things out and try to illustrate how this could be redeveloped in different ways," Boras said. "A lot of people see development as a bad thing, but somebody has to have some vision."

Historic guidelines govern part of the property, including roughly 40 small stone buildings that line one of the main streets and once held a kitchen and office for each regiment of the National Guard. The structures could be refashioned as small shops for a commercial street, leading to a main square, Boras suggested.

PenMar also is talking to Washington County about taking over part of the land as a community park, including the large parade field.

But infrastructure problems remain. PenMar operates a 300,000-gallon, spring-fed reservoir and owns the electricity, water and sewer lines that lace the property and have deteriorated in the years since the Army left.

"We've got infrastructure that needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed in conjunction with the county government," said Bob Brennan, who sits on PenMar's board and is secretary of the Maryland Economic Development Corp..

But the county is reluctant to take on that financial responsibility.

"The infrastructure is very problematic," said Callaham, the county commissioner.

COPT and PenMar together paid for the popular community center, which opened in 2008 and preserved the wooden beams of the base's former gym. This spring, PenMar also sought and won approval of Fort Ritchie as one of the state's "sustainable communities," which qualifies the property for tax advantages and grants.

But residents said the closed fort has not gotten the support it needs.

"People definitely are frustrated," said Matthew Muller, 33, whose family has owned Flohr Lumber Co. in nearby Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., since 1893. "I think people feel abandoned in a way. They made a lot of promises to do something here, and they just never have."

Many need convincing that this time will be different.

"We're back to where we were basically in the beginning of 1999," said Julie Sanders, whose family's Sanders Market, a grocery store in Cascade, dates to 1956. "We're hopeful, but after so many years, you begin to wonder."

PenMar is running a deficit, said Boras, who declined to disclose how much. Finding new tenants for buildings could help, but he said it adds urgency to a task he's given himself three years to kick-start.

"I just felt that if I couldn't do it in three years then they really had the wrong guy," he said.

nsherman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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