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GSA bows to Mikulski's pressure
By CAROLYN SWIFT Staff Writer Published: Thursday, January 14, 2010 

RUTHSBURG  - The General Services Administration has agreed to comply with the demands outlined by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., to better address community concerns about the proposed Foreign Affairs Security Training Center in Ruthsburg, but is it too little too late?

In a letter addressed Tuesday to Mikulski, Stephen Leeds, acting administrator of GSA, said the agency will extend the public comment period from Jan. 15 to Feb. 19, hold two additional public meetings prior to Feb. 19, ensure that the staff present at the upcoming meetings can effectively speak to the specifics of the project and explain the community's role in the process and arrange for local property owners to tour similar federal facilities, all of which Mikulski asked for in her Jan. 8 letter.

The dates for the additional public hearings have not yet been released by the GSA, but Leeds said they will be released within a week of Tuesday. Also in his letter, Leeds said the GSA will publicize responses to questions and comments received by the public at www.state.gov/recovery.

Mikulski's comments came on the heels of mounting community outrage following two public meetings held last week at Queen Anne's County High School, where residents searching for answers to basic questions were left uninformed by GSA representatives.

Of major concern to residents was the timeline for the project, its environmental impacts and how community input would be taken into account, according to Mikulski's letter.

In her letter to Leeds, Mikulski wrote, "GSA representatives were completely unprepared to answer fundamental, legitimate questions pertaining to the community's concerns about the facility. They displayed a shocking, inexcusable and inexplicable lack of preparation, which has resulted in threats of lawsuits, widespread anger and what I fear now is an implacable opposition to the project."

Leeds admitted in his letter that GSA "did not successfully begin the public engagement process for this project."

"We understand that we must build trust and demonstrate our commitment to working with the community to make sure the proposed development of the FASTC is consistent with the values of the Eastern Shore," he wrote.

Despite the GSA's recent promise to redouble their efforts to make sure community members are fully informed and their voices are heard, some Queen Anne's County Commissioners are hesitant that this last-ditch effort is going to be enough to salvage the project.

Queen Anne's County Commissioner Gene Ransom said the process has been so flawed that he does not see how the center will end up at its proposed location, on 2,050 acres of the Hunt Ray Farm and Crismer Farm comprise near Routes 304 and 481 in Ruthsburg.

"I think we're beyond all this now," Ransom said. "With this much community opposition, (the GSA and the State Department) need to start at the beginning and look for other sites."

Ransom called the project a mess, saying "nothing but harm is being done to the county by continuing this process."

Queen Anne's County Commissioner Eric Wargotz agreed with Ransom saying he does not think the project can be salvaged, as community opposition continues to rise.

"If citizens don't want (the facility), it should not be pushed upon them," Wargotz said. "I think we as elected officials have to do the job we were hired to do, and that's represent the people."

After reading the communication between Leeds and Mikulski, Wargotz said he was alarmed at the continued pursuance of the project on both ends.

Wargotz said that without intervention from Mikulski, he does not believe the State Department and the GSA will consider alternate locations.

"I'm asking Sen. Mikulski to appeal to Secretary Clinton to choose a different site in Maryland," said Wargotz.

While admitting he was excited about the economic possibilities the project would bring, ultimately Wargotz said location is simply not right.

"If you put a facility like this in little Ruthsburg it will forever change the landscape," Wargotz said, claiming the area does not have the infrastructure to support the facility.

Ransom was particularly upset about the public hearing last Thursday, where he said GSA representatives asked Queen Anne's County Sheriff R. Gery Hofmann III to take the microphone away from residents trying to voice their concerns. According to Ransom, Hofmann refused.

"That's just not the way public processes should occur," Ransom said. "I'm proud of the sheriff for letting the people speak."

In response to recent opposition from U.S. Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-Md.-1st, Ransom said "that's wonderful that he's come out and opposed (the facility)."

The Queen Anne's County Commissioners originally asked for Kratovil's support on the project before withdrawing their own Dec. 22. Ransom said he is sorry that the board "dragged Kratovil into this mess."

The center would condense training currently taught in 19 different facilities 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 estimated cost of the project is between $150 million and $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 project is expected to bring 400 full- and part-time jobs to the area, along with construction jobs to build the facility, according to information the federal government provided Queen Anne's County in September.



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