By MORGAN GIBSON
WASHINGTON (March 13, 2010) - Battle lines are drawn on the Eastern Shore over a proposed State Department training center planned for tiny Ruthsburg.
But people who live near similar facilities in Sykesville and Brunswick, Ga., say the centers have been good neighbors and the surrounding communities have never experienced the controversy and resistance seen now in Queen Anne's County.
"If those folks up there in Maryland don't want them, send them here," M.H. "Woody" Woodside, president of the local Chamber of Commerce and 30-year resident of Glynn County, Ga., said about the Ruthsburg project.
Tension in the Eastern Shore community has been high since November, when Hunt Ray Farm near Ruthsburg was announced as the preferred site for the 2,000-acre Federal Affairs Security Training Center.
The anti-terrorism and security training center would encompass explosives training, firing ranges and racetracks, as well as classrooms and housing for the students. The $150 million to $500 million project, funded partly by $70 million in stimulus money, would consolidate 19 other training facilities into one.
Many local residents and business owners support FASTC, saying it would provide a much-needed economic boost, creating jobs and putting more people in their restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
Opponents argue that the 400 anticipated jobs wouldn't all go to Queen Anne's County residents, and that the economic impact wouldn't outweigh the negatives, such as the potentially harmful environmental effects, especially on Tuckahoe Creek, within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Opponents are also concerned that noise from firing ranges and explosives training will disrupt their quiet life, and scare their children or spook their horses.
Failure by the General Services Administration, which is responsible for the early stages of the project, to answer residents' questions and ease local concern prompted a rebuke from Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who demanded that GSA push back the deadline for public comment and requested a tour of a similar facility for the site's neighbors.
In response, GSA moved the comment deadline and arranged a tour of the Public Safety Education and Training Center in Sykesville, which, like FASTC, has firing ranges, driving tracks and an urban driving grid.
On March 3, some Ruthsburg residents and representatives from the offices of Miluski, Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-Stevensville, and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., toured Sykesville so they could see the kinds of training facilities FASTC would contain.
"We certainly feel that this tour was a good step forward in talking with the community and continuing dialogue with the community," Cardin's Communications Director Susan Sullam said. "The senator wants to ensure that the process continues to move forward and that all the questions and concerns of the community are answered, and this is a part of that process."
Others say the tour was less than a success.
Sherry Adam, a Ruthsburg resident and FASTC opponent, said the tour didn't give her a sense for how FASTC would be operated. Adam also complained she didn't see any students.
"It was like a freaking ghost town," she said. "We wasted the entire day to see nothing."
GSA spokesman Chris Hoagland said, "This site was selected because it was the closest facility with a similar, although not identical, training mission, and because the Maryland Congressional delegation suggested touring a Maryland-based site."
The Sykesville facility is a little more than a third the size of FASTC, and while both facilities have firing ranges and tracks, the Ruthsburg site has more of them. FASTC would also have weekly explosive detonations, whereas the Sykesville facility only has two per year.
The Sykesville community has a positive relationship with the facility.
Matt Candland, Sykesville's town manager, said the town and the facility coexist peacefully, that the police cars from the facility frequently use the town's gas stations and sometimes its restaurants. He said there aren't really complaints, just occasionally some questions.
"It's nice to have more cops around," said Gail Holliday, a Sykesville business owner and resident.
The locations of the two facilities are very different. Sykesville, with a population of around 5,000, is a mountainous historic town with some pastoral patches, but is largely a developing, suburban area. Ruthsburg has maybe a couple hundred people and no mayor or post office, just miles of bucolic farmland.
Holliday has been in Sykesville for 15 years and lives about four miles from the facility. While she doesn't have any qualms about the facility, Holliday said comparing the Sykesville facility to the Ruthsburg project might be "comparing apples to oranges."
The Sykesville property was owned by the state before the training center was built, and it used to be a state mental institution.
"It's different than taking over 2,000 acres of someone's farmland," Holliday said.
The only truly comparable federal facility, Hoagland said, is the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynn County, Ga., because of its "size, operational activities, scope of training, and location."
Both facilities do the same types of training, but the Georgia facility trains more than double the amount of students at a slightly smaller campus.
The Georgia facility, which has been in Brunswick since 1975, occupies a former naval air station base, Woodside said. When the station's closing was announced, the community worried about the impact it would have on the area.
Woodside said the town worked hard to get the training center into its area, and he was part of the congressional staff that got it there.
"We needed the jobs and the opportunities," Woodside said. "And we've enjoyed every minute of their experience there."
The economic impact on the community has been very positive, Woodside said. Georgia Tech conducted a study in 2003 identifying the training center as the largest employer in Glynn County.
Northside Baptist Church adjoins the facility and Senior Pastor Craig Hartzog said the church views it as a very good neighbor. Hartzog said he hardly hears any real criticism of the training center and that it is strongly embraced by the community.
They do hear explosives, "the screech of rubber" and gunfire quite often, he said, but it's just become part of a normal and routine day, much like living near a military base.
Brunswick is a small, suburban town with about 20,000 primarily blue-collar residents and a big seafood industry, Hartzog said, and "it's miles before you get to any kind of farmland."
Unlike the other two facilities, which were converted from other institutions, FASTC would be placed on what is currently residential farmland, not a piece of government-owned property.
"They're purchasing some of the most premium farmland on the Eastern Shore," said David Dunmyer, a Ruthsburg business owner and FASTC opponent. "It's a rural, agricultural area, and that's why people live there."
The public comment period ended March 12. The environmental assessment will be published in late March or early April. It will take into account all the comments and concerns that have been voiced and map out the potential impacts of the facility.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.