September 04, 2014

Manchin, state officials tour Navy Base, The Inter-Mountain

SUGAR GROVE - U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Division of Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein toured the Navy Base to determine if it could be restructured as a minimum security corrections facility when it closes in 2015.

"I've always been impressed here - this is a tremendous facility, and we've been trying to find the proper use and a marriage-able fit to sustain it as a state entity," Manchin told a group of local business, educational and elected officials at an informational luncheon held after the tour.

"It's good to have state, federal and local people here today together to discuss the future use of the base," Manchin added.

The lower base of the Navy Information Operations Command Sugar Grove is due to be phased out by the National Security Agency by October 2015.

The close-out procedure gives priority to federal, then state, then private organizations.

The Department of Defense and other federal government entities informally have declined a use for the base. Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services have not determined yet if either one wants the base, according to Base Commander William J. Kramer Jr.

The General Services Administration has until March, 2015 to conduct a public benefit conveyance to the state, a non-profit or educational group for public use. If there is no conveyance, then the base will close Sept. 30. 2015.

"The GSA will determine the best public use of the property by March/April 2015. If there is no interest, it will list the property for public sale," Kramer said.

"We're here to facilitate information to any and all entities," Kramer added.

"If the federal government does not take the base, it truly would be a mistake if the state did not hold on to such an asset," Manchin said.

Rubenstein said the state has a number of correction facilities around the state with a growing inmate population. He and the governor see the benefit of education so that the inmates can go back into society as tax-paying citizens.

"West Virginia has one of the lowest rates of recidivism," he said.

Rubenstein visualizes no hardened criminal inmates at the Sugar Grove location, but those transitioning back into society.

"This base site does not lend itself to work as a high security facility," he said.

Also impressed with the base, Tomblin said the facility offered several educational amenities for transitional inmates. Some of these could be taught by going out into the community if that would be acceptable to local citizens.

"We'll check to see if the base will fit into our correctional program. We also want to do what we can to maintain local jobs," Tomblin said.

County Commissioners Gene McConnell, Carl Hevener and Randy Roberson have no problem with a correctional facility being located in Pendleton County. They said it would be an asset to have a state agency that would remain on site with state civil service paying jobs with good benefits.

McConnell said locals, looking at the economic potential, would probably be supportive of a transitional or minimum security type corrections facility.

"If it were a maximum security, there would be less support," he said.

Hevener said "You're still going to get flak from about 50 nay-sayers."

The DOC has the job of educating the local population with a public relations program holding public hearings, including presentations from several who live near like facilities, Rubenstein said.

"We can be a good neighbor with assistance in such thing such as road and stream cleanups. Ninety percent of our inmates will be going back into society to become law abiding, tax-paying citizens," he said.

Manchin promised he would do all he could, if the locals want the state facility.

"I'll work with the governor's and Sen. (Jay) Rockefeller's offices on this," Manchin said. "Since we're all on the same page, this is a high priority with us. ...We'll do anything we can to help. We'll try to expedite and get HUD and HHS to make their decisions soon."

The GSA is the final arbiter on whether the base goes to the DOC or an educational group.

"The locals need to convey to the GSA what they want," Manchin said.

By:  Joan Ashley