Re-use plans ease economic fears over Navy base closure in W.Va.

Two proposals are on the table for repurposing the U.S. Navy Information Operations Command base at Sugar Grove, in Pendleton County, when the Navy ships out next September.

A regional vocational training center for youths transitioning from foster care to adult independence and a state-run minimum-security prison are vying to be the new occupant of West Virginia’s sole active-duty military base when it closes next fall.

The Navy Information Operations Command base at Sugar Grove, in Pendleton County, provides jobs for more than 300 military and civilian workers and supports 200 of their dependents.

In addition to pumping millions of payroll dollars into the local economy each year, the base provides fire and ambulance support to southeastern Pendleton County and “offers volunteer services that can’t be measured in dollars,” said Kim Ruddle, the Pendleton County Economic Development Authority administrator. “Navy families are great volunteers. They bend over backward to help out with Little League, soccer and other community activities.”

More than one-third of the students attending Brandywine Elementary, the school nearest the base, are the offspring of Navy or civilian personnel working at NIOC Sugar Grove.

Closure of the base, scheduled to take place by the end of September, “is a pretty big hit for us,” said Pendleton County Commission President Gene McConnell. “To say we have a lack of economic opportunity here is an understatement. We’re a border county and even with the base, a lot of our people are driving to Virginia for employment.”

But the blow is softened somewhat, he said, by having two viable candidates ready to occupy and re-purpose the base as soon as the Navy ships out.

KVC Health Systems, a national nonprofit child welfare and behavioral health-care organization with a strong presence in West Virginia, has been working for nearly two years on its plan to convert the base into Sugar Grove College, a residential vocational college for youth who are too old for foster care yet have no family or home to turn to for support as they attempt to enter the job market or continue their education.

“Nationally, more than 30,000 kids age out of foster care annually — they’re either not adopted or don’t reunite with their families,” said Marilyn Jacobson, general counsel for KVC. “Without having the support of a home or a family, making the transition to college or some type of vocational training can be especially difficult.”

According to KVC, 56 percent of youths who age out of foster care are unemployed, and 27 percent of young males who age out end up being jailed. Only 2 percent of youths who age out of foster care graduate from college.

“We want to help some of these kids bridge the gap between foster care and employment while we help Pendleton County bridge the gap in economic development caused by the closure of the base,” Jacobson said.

Sugar Grove College would offer training in independent-living skills, as well as accredited classroom and hands-on work in such areas as firefighting, construction, computer information, medical coding, culinary service and building maintenance. In addition to instructors, students would have access to trauma-trained career coaches and mentors, according to Jacobson.

“We plan to work with veterans, since they not only have the vocational/technical skills the kids need, but often have experience with trauma and familial separation, as well,” Jacobson said.

Sugar Grove College would draw students from West Virginia and surrounding states and would help them apply for scholarships and grants, to help pay for the program.

“This will be the first program of its kind in the nation,” Jacobson said. “Our hope is that we can use this project to produce research showing that this is a successful model that other states may want to look into.”

The Navy base, with its varied housing options, administrative buildings, shops, food service, and recreational facilities spread across well-tended grounds “looks like a career college campus to us already,” Jacobson said. “We could easily transform it into something people across the country could be proud of.”

The West Virginia Division of Corrections, the second entity to officially express interest in the base, envisions converting the property into a “minimum- to low-medium-security” facility in which to house 500 or more inmates.

“The existing structures appear ideal for Correctional Industries, as well as other programming,” Lawrence Messina, communications director for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said in an email.

“Corrections would collaborate with the National Guard and its Wounded Warriors program, for instance, while the Department of Agriculture could develop land on or near the property for inmate farming,” Messina added. “Corrections is also examining options for the property’s residential housing, including as a place for staff to live on-campus.”

Corrections is in the process of developing a detailed proposal to present to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for his consideration. The formal application will be filed with the federal General Services Administration early next year. Corrections and KVC have officially expressed interest in the property with the GSA, the agency in charge of dealing with surplus federal property, and both plan to file formal requests with the GSA to take over the base.

It will be up to the GSA to determine which entity will assume control of the base, although “we’ve been warned that anywhere along the process, up to the date a deed is signed, a federal agency could come in and trump whoever’s been chosen,” Ruddle said. “So far, there’s been no interest shown from any federal agency that I’m aware of.”

Meanwhile, county officials remain noncommittal about which re-use option they prefer.

“Both proposals have merit and would be good for the county,” Ruddle said.

“Our position is that we will support anything that would have a positive outcome for Pendleton County,” McConnell said.

While rumors of the Navy base’s impending closure have risen and fallen over the years, “it turned out to be true this time, so it was something of a shock,” Ruddle said.

Three years ago, the chief of naval operations ordered NIOC Sugar Grove “disestablished” by September 2015. The closure of the facility, which has been involved in signals-intelligence monitoring for decades, was sought by the National Security Agency, the base’s “resource sponsor,” according to Navy documents. According to a notice issued by the CNO’s office, the NSA opted to “relocate the command’s mission” and transfer all military positions at the base to other NIOC sites. Meanwhile, “operational functions at the [Sugar Grove] site will be absorbed by the NSA.”

The Sugar Grove base encompasses two tracts of land — the 122-acre campus containing all housing and most of the base’s administrative offices, maintenance shops, recreational facilities and food service venues, and a larger but less-developed upper base, which includes an array of parabolic dish receivers and a multi-level underground building, the Linn Operations Center, named in honor of a Navy communications technician killed during the 1967 attack on the spy ship USS Liberty by Israeli warplanes. The NSA apparently will continue to occupy the upper base and operate it without Navy personnel.

With a presence in Pendleton County that dates back nearly 60 years, the Navy base has been a cornerstone of Pendleton County’s socioeconomic structure while fulfilling a key national security role. Due to the classified nature of the base’s operational work, not much is publicly known of its achievements, other than the fact that it earned a Meritorious Unit Commendation in 1974 for “outstanding support of the national intelligence effort.” The base also has received several citations for outstanding environmental stewardship of its property, which contains habitat for several endangered plant species.

While a 122-acre patch of forest and farmland wedged between Allegheny Mountain and the headwaters of the Potomac River’s South Fork might seem an odd locale for a Navy presence, the site is well-suited for its mission.

According to the official base history for NIOC Sugar Grove, “the Navy’s presence in Sugar Grove began in 1955, when the present site of the NIOC was selected for a Naval Research Laboratory project which was to lead to the construction of a large parabolic antenna for advanced communications research. The site was selected as the ideal location for this project because of the natural mountains shielding and the extremely low level of man-made noise.”

In 1956, a 60-foot antenna was completed and became operational for feasibility studies for a 600-foot parabolic antenna that would “probe outer space, tuning in on radio signals 38 billion light years away from Earth,” the history continues. The 600-foot dish would have been the heart of the operation. In 1958, ground was broken and construction began but, due to “unforeseen advances in related fields of science and technology,” the project was dropped before the huge radiotelescope was completed. The 60-foot scope is still in use as part of the base’s array of parabolic dish receivers.

In 1962, with the base’s future in doubt, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., asked the Navy to look into other uses for the site. In response, the history continues, “the Navy proposed the site to be used as a radio receiving station, due in part to its unique location within the National Radio Quiet Zone,” which had been created in 1959 to accommodate the establishment of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, in neighboring Pocahontas County.

The proposal won congressional approval in 1963, and work began for an $11 million high-frequency Naval Radio Station, which included a 150-foot parabolic antenna. In 1968, the Congressional Record described the base as “the main receiver site for worldwide Navy radio communications coming into the Washington, D.C., area.” Also in 1968, a Naval Security Group detachment was established at Sugar Grove.

By 1969, two huge, circular antenna arrays, called Wullenwebers, each 1,000 feet in diameter, were operating at the base and served as the station’s main receiving antennas. They have since been removed. At that time, according to the base history, “the Naval Radio Station was called ‘the Navy’s Ear,’ gathering communications from Navy planes, ships and stations from around the world.”

By 1976, according to the history, the Naval Security Group had assumed operation of the 60-foot dish and, by the following year, had moved into a previously unused lower level of the underground Linn Operations Center. Because of increased automation in Navy communications operations, the Naval Radio Station component at Sugar Grove was merged with another location in 1992, and the Naval Security Group assumed operation of the base. By the end of 2005, the Naval Security Group’s mission at Sugar Grove also was merged with another site and the base became an element of the Navy Information Operations Command, which assumed the base’s “cryptologic element responsibilities.”

Soon after closure plans for the base were announced, state officials and West Virginia’s congressional delegation asked the Navy to reconsider closing it. Last May, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and staff representatives of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also D-W.Va., toured the base and pledged to do all they could to find a new military mission for the facility. Since then, re-use efforts have focused on civilian possibilities for the base.

“We’ve been getting good support from our state representatives and our representatives in Washington, D.C.,” McConnell said. “We expect to hear something from the GSA [about who the new occupant might be] sometime during the first quarter of next year. We need to nave something finalized before the Navy moves out and the government takes everything of value from the base. The facility has been superbly maintained over the years, and we’d hate to lose any of it. If someone would have to rebuild what’s there now, it would cost about $150 million.”

McConnell said it is his understanding that the base could be transferred at no cost to certain government or nonprofit users.

While losing the Navy’s presence will be a major economic blow for Pendleton County, “we’re pleased that at least two viable entities are interested in the base,” he said. “Not re-using it would be a tremendous waste.”

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

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