Canaan Valley Institute building won’t be used for new refuge headquarters

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that it has dropped plans to use a state-of-the-art “green” building now occupied by the Canaan Valley Institute as a new headquarters and visitor center for Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

The decision clears the way for the National Youth Science Foundation to resume its bid to use the $8 million, 28,000-square-foot building for its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Education Center, to be operated in conjunction with its National Center for Youth Science Education, a $50 million development planned to take shape on land the foundation owns across the Blackwater River from the CVI building.

Completed in 2009 with funding from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the LEED-certified CVI building contains a conference hall with seating for 120, a 39-station computer lab, a 1,000-square-foot research lab and a similar-sized teaching lab. CVI, which helps communities across the region plan stream restoration, conservation and remediation projects ranging from erosion control to small-scale sewer projects, has hosted numerous workshops and conferences at the facility.

But after Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., a longtime booster of the institute, was defeated in 2010, CVI’s federal grant income has fallen while new business opportunities have dropped. Last year, CVI officials asked to be allowed to keep a suite of offices in the building, but have another entity become the primary occupant and pay for upkeep.

In 2006, CVI and the NYSF agreed to give the science foundation first change to take over the facility if CVI stopped using it. Last summer, the NYSF raised $200,000 to operate the center for the next two years, and asked NOAA for authorization to take over the facility.

Instead, NOAA announced in October that it was giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the first option to take over the building and the 37 acres that make up the CVI campus to replace the aging Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and visitor center, now located in a 39-year-old former restaurant building along W.Va. 32 in Canaan Valley.

During a Dec. 3 public meeting on the proposed transfer of the CVI building to the refuge, public support for the plan was minimal.

On Tuesday, refuge manager Ron Hollis said the decision not to pursue NOAA’s offer to occupy the CVI building “was made after considering public comments.”

Hollis said the existing refuge headquarters and visitor center “ultimately needs to be replaced to meet Department of the Interior standards,” and needs about $1 million in repairs to continue in its current location.

Tuesday’s announcement “was very welcome news,” said NYSF Executive Director Andrew Blackwood. “We’re very excited to have this opportunity to work with all stakeholders to face the challenges ahead and advance STEM education.”

While the NYSF has not had the chance “to have a conversation with NOAA about how to move forward from here, we were told in October that we would be next in line” if the refuge headquarters move failed to take shape, Blackwood said. “Based on that, it suggests NOAA will be reaching out to us.”

“Leveraging its half century of experience with the National Youth Science Camp and with appropriate state and private support, the NYSF is anxious to work withy representatives of NOAA and CVI to insure the facilities of CVI are preserved in support of STEM education,”said NYSF Board of Trustees President Ron Pearson. He thanked several federal, state and local officials, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who said the facility planned by the NYSF “would be a national hub for STEM education, which is critical in making sure our students learn the necessary math, science and technology skills needed to compete in a globalized world.

“This would be an extremely wonderful opportunity to expand education opportunites for students in Tucker County, across the Mountain State, and around the country. Many of our nation’s brightest students, teachers and researchers would be coming to West Virginia, which is great for our economy, our education programs, and out next generation of skilled professionals,” Manchin said.

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

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