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Talbot, Caroline looking for alternative sites for FASTC 
Caroline County also sends letter of support for current proposed site in Ruthsburg

By CAROLYN SWIFT and DANIEL DIVILIO Special from The Star Democrat
Friday, January 29, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 4:03 pm, Wed Jan 27, 2010 

EASTON  Representatives from Caroline and Talbot counties are exploring the possibility of finding another site for the $150 million to $500 million U.S. State Department Foreign Affairs Security Training Center project if it falls through in Queen Anne's County.

The center is expected to provide 400 jobs as well as generate construction jobs over a five-year period while it is being built.

The Talbot County Economic Development Office has contacted the U.S. General Services Administration about potential sites in Talbot County on request from the Talbot County Council, said Council President Levin "Buddy" Harrison IV.

"We're just in the exploratory phase right now," Harrison said.

Harrison did not have any specific property in mind, but said the county is searching for possible locations.

JOK Walsh, executive director of the Caroline Economic Development Corp., said he has contacted private developers who may be involved in the construction and operation of the facility. Conversations, however, have been limited to tracking the existing project. Walsh said he has not been in contact with anyone from GSA or the State Department.

Walsh originally was approached by a consultant seeking information during the initial search for potential sites. Although interested, Walsh said he does not think Caroline County was ever seriously considered because project representatives could not find a large enough parcel with contiguous property for sale.

Jack Cole, president of the Caroline County Commission, would like to see the facility built in Caroline County, but said the GSA's process precludes that, as they would most likely revert to a list of qualified sites they gathered during the initial search if the center does not come to fruition in Ruthsburg.

The Caroline County Commissioners have gone on record supporting the project at its proposed site in Ruthsburg through a letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.

In the letter authorized Jan. 12, Cole said the commissioners expressed their desire to see the project move forward, but only after the GSA and State Department provide necessary explanations of the effects of the project to local residents.

"Let's face it, I think the presentations they initially made added to the problem. They were terrible," Cole said. "But having a facility of this type in the area is probably a good thing. That's what I'm thinking."

Caroline County Commissioner Roger Layton said he favors the project because it looks like it could be good for the local economy and create much-needed jobs.

Cole said he is concerned that the "oft-repeated lies" by a vocal minority against the facility are improperly swaying public opinion and Queen Anne's officials.

"I, quite frankly, think it's a darn shame. We're probably going to lose what could be a major asset," said Cole. Layton agreed.

Caroline County Commissioner Jeff Ghrist had a more cautious approach, saying he needs more information about the facility and its effects on the area.

Ridgely Commissioner Dale Mumford said he supports the plan, explaining that elected officials sometimes have to take the lead, even without having 100 percent of the necessary information.

Caroline County administrator Rick Barton said he has communicated with U.S. Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-Md.-1st, about the potential for the proposed Ridgely technology park's involvement with the project, as per the suggestion of Mumford and Walsh.

Keasha Haythe, director of Dorchester County Economic Development, said she hopes to discuss the possibilities of housing the facility with the county council, but has not had any formal discussion with government representatives or Dorchester County councilmen.

The Dorchester County Council will bring up the topic at the meeting, said Jay Newcomb, council president. Newcomb said the council is willing to talk about possible locations if contacted by government representatives, but added they had not formally discussed the issue amongst themselves.

The center would condense training currently taught in 19 different facilities around the nation into a single facility, providing both "hard skills" and "soft skills" training. The hard skills training would include indoor and outdoor firing ranges, an explosives range, weapons and explosives storage, three driving tracks and several mock urban environments. Classrooms, simulation labs, administrative offices and a fitness center would comprise the "soft skills" portion.

The project is estimated to cost between $150 million to $500 million, with $70 million of the $105.5 million allocated for phase 1 of the project coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (federal stimulus bill). The new center is expected to bring 400 full- and part-time jobs to the area, along with construction jobs to build the facility over the five years.

Uncertainty surrounding the location in Ruthsburg came after Queen Anne's County Commissioners withdrew their support Dec. 22 after what they characterized as an "inadequate public outreach process" by GSA representatives. Some local residents also voiced opposition to the project after two public meetings Jan. 5 and 7.

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