It is understandable that a lot of folks in Pendleton County are upset with Governor Tomblin for rejecting the federal government’s offer to turn over the decommissioned naval base at Sugar Grove to the state for a prison.  The area is desperate for jobs and a prison would have provided steady work with state benefits.

Tomblin could not justify carving $19 million out of an already tight budget to turn the 120-acre site and its existing buildings into a prison.  However, the Governor’s decision to pass on the deal has opened up another opportunity, and this one is intriguing.

The General Services Administration, which now has control of the property, will set up an auction and KVC Health Systems is very interested in buying it. KVC is a Kansas-based private non-profit national leader in child welfare and behavioral health care.  It wants to buy Sugar Grove and convert it into a first-of-its-kind skills training college for young adults who are transitioning out of foster care.

The current problem is when children in foster care reach 18, they are sent out on their own, often without adequate life or career skills.  Of the 30,000 young adults who age out every year, only two percent earn post-secondary degrees.

Worse yet, these young people are at a much higher risk of becoming under employed, having a child out of wedlock, going to jail or even ending up homeless.  A 2013 study by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative found that for every young adult who leaves foster care at age 18, communities and taxpayers spend an average of $300,000 in social costs over that person’s lifetime.

KVC CEO Wayne Sims believes there is a better way, and it starts at Sugar Grove.  “This is a grand opportunity to create a national model in a system where nothing has really been effective,” he told me on a recent Talkline.  “We believe we can change the face of foster care.”

Sims envisions employing between 115 and 120 people initially.  Students would come from all over the country, arriving in cohorts of 50 for their training.  The Sugar Grove College would provide vocational and life skills training and help with career placement.

First, however, KVC has to acquire the property.  GSA will appraise the property’s value then schedule an auction. Sims won’t say how much he thinks the old military base and the over 100 buildings, including base housing, is worth, but he’s very interested.

“The facility is beautiful and it’s excellent for a college.  It’s just absolutely perfect for our needs,” he said.

Ultimately, the Sugar Grove College could be an even better deal for the community and the state, while also providing life-changing opportunities for young people who need the help.

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