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Sunken WV prison plan leaves Navy base re-use plans adrift

By RICK STEELHAMMER | The Charleston Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: September 13, 2015

Re-use plans for the soon-to-be-vacated Navy Information Operations Command station at Sugar Grove, in Pendleton County, are adrift in a sea of uncertainty, following a decision earlier this month by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to not accept the base for conversion to a women's prison.

While the 122-acre installation -- West Virginia's lone active-duty military base -- was offered to the state free of charge by the federal General Services Administration for use as a Division of Corrections facility for female offenders, Tomblin said it would have taken $19 million in conversion costs to turn the base into a prison. Estimated annual operating costs of at least $14 million also factored into the decision to turn down the gift.

Tomblin said it makes better economic sense to keep female inmates at the state's sole women's prison, the Lakin Correctional Center, and convert the Point Pleasant National Guard Armory, located a short distance down W.Va. 62 from Lakin, into a prison to accommodate female inmates now housed in regional jails. Costs for transitioning the National Guard facility into a prison are estimated at $8 million, with annual operating costs of $3.9 million.

The one company of the 1092nd Engineering Battalion now stationed at the Mason County armory would be transferred to Parkersburg, and the Guard would continue to maintain the base, where the Division of Corrections would operate a training program for Guard personnel transitioning to civilian jobs in the corrections field, according to Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

"The female inmate population is our fastest-growing segment in West Virginia," Tomblin said in a news release announcing the decision to decline ownership of the Sugar Grove base. "This plan provides the most cost-effective means of managing that growth."

With the women's prison plan now dead, Pendleton County Commission President Gene McConnell said the fate of the Navy base "is totally in the hands of the GSA. I understand they're in the process of getting an appraisal of the property, and they will use that to set a reserve, or minimum bid, for a public auction."

The only party now actively trying to acquire the base is KVC Health Systems Inc., which wants to convert it into Sugar Grove College, a community college for young adults from West Virginia and neighboring states who have aged out of the foster-care system and need training and extra support to prepare for independent living and successful careers. Earlier this year, the GSA rejected KVC's re-use plan in favor of the Division of Corrections plan.

While the Kansas-based firm, which operates eight behavioral-care and child-placement offices in West Virginia, would have preferred receiving the base on the same terms it was offered to the state, "KVC is not afraid of a public auction," said spokesman Thomas Bailey, of Charleston.

"We've been interested in this property for three years, and we have a funding plan ready to go. But there's an interest in finding a quicker route to the property than an auction, which could take six to 12 months for the GSA to arrange."

Bailey said KVC is working with the Governor's Office, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, and state and Pendleton County economic development personnel "to see if there's a way to get the property transferred to KVC or anyone else faster than through a public auction. The facility needs air and heating to keep it from deteriorating, and the people who worked at the Navy base need jobs."

"It would be to everyone's advantage to move quickly and have a new occupant," said Jennifer Taylor-Ide, a counselor with Pendleton Community Care. "The civilian employees at the base were hoping for a fluid transition to new jobs there, since both groups [the Division of Corrections and KVC] made overtures of employment. At this point, I think that's pretty much impossible, and they will either have to wait this thing out or look for new jobs elsewhere."

In recent years, the base employed about 300 Navy and civilian workers, who supported more than 200 dependents, making it second only to the county school system as a top employer in Pendleton County. Elected officials in Pendleton County have said the base is valued at more than $200 million.

"It hurts the county economically, but maybe even more importantly, the base has always been a very positive presence and contributed culturally and socially to the community," McConnell said. "They provided us with EMS and fire protection. They've been a very good neighbor, and they will be missed."

Construction began on the remote base in 1955, when the Naval Research Institute built a 60-foot-diameter parabolic radio telescope on the site for "advanced communications research," according to an official base history. The Navy began operating the base as a Naval Radio Station in 1963, but it became a Naval Security Group Activity in 1992, earning a Meritorious Unit Commendation along the way for its "outstanding support of the national intelligence effort."

Changes in technology and a merger of missions resulted in the base becoming part of the Naval Information Operations Command in 2005. A closing ceremony was held at the base earlier this month, although it won't lock its gates until Sept. 30.

The 122-acre section of the base that is closing includes dormitory-style barracks, single-family homes, administrative buildings, repair shops, food services, a gym, a bowling alley, a library and a community center.

A more secure operations area, located several miles from the main base, includes an underground monitoring station and an array of parabolic dish receivers. It will remain open and be operated by the National Security Agency.

"It would be close to a turn-key transition for KVC to convert the base into the college," Bailey said. "We're hoping the GSA will come back with something that's best for the community."

GSA spokeswoman Gina Gilliam said Friday that NIOC Sugar Grove will be "available for public competitive sale this fall. [The] GSA will aggressively market the property in national, regional and local markets. This is an example of how [the] GSA is committed to promoting local redevelopment and returning unneeded federal properties to productive use."

While the public sale is still in its planning stage, the GSA "anticipates a late spring/early summer sale conclusion" in 2016, Gilliam said, to give prospective buyers "a reasonable amount of time to conduct due-diligence activities and consider the investment opportunities."

The GSA, Gilliam said, "by working together with partner federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, business groups and citizens, will leave a lasting positive impact on the community by bringing growth and economic stability to the area."

There will be several opportunities for prospective buyers to inspect the Navy base as early as this fall, Gilliam said. Terms and conditions of the public sale will be available in coming weeks.

rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com

(c) 2015 The Charleston Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.