Governor Tomblin faces a September 3rd deadline to decide whether to accept the federal government’s offer to turn over the U.S. Military’s Sugar Grove Naval Station in Pendleton County to the state.
Initially, it would seem like an easy call; the military has pulled out of the one-time communications facility and wants to get rid of the property, which includes more than 100 buildings—including housing—on 120 acres.
Under the proposal, the federal government will turn over the installation to the state at no cost only if it’s turned into a prison, and that’s where it gets complicated.
Corrections officials estimate it would take $18 million dollars to convert the property into a prison. Tomblin is trying to manage a state budget that’s growing tougher by the day because of the slumping coal industry and he’s not sure where to find the money.
Meanwhile, there is a second issue. The state’s proposal calls for shifting more than 500 female prisoners at the Lakin Correctional Facility in Mason County to Sugar Grove. Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein says Sugar Grove would be a better fit for female prisoners, while the Lakin facility would then hold male prisoners.
Currently, regional jails are overflowing with prisoners who should be at Huttonsville or Mount Olive, but there’s no room there. Under the plan, Lakin would house medium security male inmates to ease the overcrowding at the regional jails. However, Mason County likes their female prison and doesn’t want to give it up.
“You’re changing it from a women’s prison that we were promised back around 2000 to a men’s prison,” Mason County Commissioner Rick Hundley said on Metronews Talkline Thursday. “Back at that time we had a public hearing and had no opposition to a women’s prison, but we did to a men’s prison.”
Hundley says Mason County views the female prisoners as “wonderful neighbors.” Locals jammed a public meeting last night to tell Commissioner Rubenstein they wanted to keep their prison as is.
In Pendleton County, community leaders want the Governor to take the deal because of the estimated 200 jobs the prison would bring. “I can’t stress enough how critical it is for this area,” Delegate Isaac Sponaugle (D-Pendleton, 55) said on Talkline recently.
And there’s yet another twist.
KVC Health Systems, a Kansas-based private, non-profit child welfare company, wants to turn the base into Sugar Grove College to serve as a training facility for young adults who are transitioning out of foster care. However, KVC would have to buy the property at an auction if the state does not take over the property.
So the next step rests with Governor Tomblin, who continues to hear from all sides on Sugar Grove. It’s anyone’s guess what the Governor will do, but the fact that he’s waited this long to make a decision would suggest he’s not going to accept the federal government’s offer.