In October 2016, just three months before he left office, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin proudly announced plans for the Rock Creek Development Park. Tomblin envisioned a multi-use development on 12,000 acres of reclaimed Hobet surface mine site off Route 119 south of Charleston along the Boone-Lincoln County line.
Tomblin, a Logan County native, hoped for an economic shot-in-the arm for southern West Virginia, which has been hit hard by the decline of coal. “For decades, our coal miners, workers and their families have kept our state strong,” Tomblin said. “Now it’s our turn to help them.”
A big chunk of that help by Tomblin was a commitment of an eye-popping $100 million to build just 2.7 miles of interstate quality highway from Route 119 up the mountain to the site. Fast forward to today; Tomblin is no longer Governor and $100 million seems like an awfully steep price for a few miles of road.
The Justice administration has scaled back the access road. It’s still a $30 million project and officials say it will meet the goal of access to Rock Creek and be four-lane, but it’s not going to be like a super highway.
Administration officials sound more cautious about the private development possibilities of Rock Creek. West Virginia already has lots of industrial parks with plenty of vacancies.
However, there is one part of the Rock Creek project that has taken off—military services and training. State Adjutant General Jim Hoyer, who is in charge of the West Virginia National Guard, says the original plans for the old Hobet mine site remain the same, but his emphasis is on the military side.
“The fair thing to say is that based on opportunities that we, the Guard, have been able to generate thus far related to our original piece of Hobet, we are going to focus more up front on the military aspect of training and defense contracting,” Hoyer told me on Talkline Monday.
“I don’t think that it’s a wholesale pivot away from industrial to strictly military,” he said.
Hoyer said an example of growth in the military sector includes mobility training with equipment reserve and active duty military that previously had to be done in other states. That’s where soldiers would learn how to operate a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a Humvee or an ATV.
“What that site provides us is the ability to train on terrain in four seasons that mimics terrain that we would potentially have service members deployed to around the globe,” Hoyer said.
He added that several defense contractors have expressed interest in using Rock Creek to test and evaluate new equipment and conduct training.
However, Senator Ron Stollings (D-Boone) worries the industrial park concept is being sidestepped. “I don’t want there to be a total replacement of the original project,” Stollings said on Talkline Monday. “In order to have a robust, diversified economy down here it can’t be either or; it has to be military and manufacturing jobs.”
Defense contracting is a gigantic market and West Virginia will benefit if it can take advantage of that. General Hoyer has taken the lead on developing the Guard’s portion of Rock Creek and it appears there’s more in the pipeline.
The private sector development portion of Rock Creek is lagging, and who knows if it will ever amount to anything. We know from experience that the “build-it-and-they-will-come” approach is more of a wish than a sound economic strategy.