By Stephen Smoot
In 2015 the Sugar Grove Naval Base, long a target of conspiracy theories and jokes (the gullible often heard claims that it was a submarine base) closed down. The passing of U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, a pit bull in defense of its service, helped to spell its end. Federal law also eliminated the mandate that intelligence facilities be paired with military bases, thus ending the last reason for its existence.
Then came the national press attention as the United States Department of Defense put the base up for auction. Time magazine described it as a city for sale in the heart of the West Virginia mountains. As many ideas floated around for its potential use as there were individuals willing and able to imagine.
In December 2015, the first buyer of the base at auction backed away from the purchase. The buyer was uncomfortable with the liabilities or potential Superfund complications. Superfund sites are chosen by the Environmental Protection Agency for remediation due to contaminated land from decades of use or emergent environmental emergencies.
Prior to the second auction, current base owner Matt Roiz remembers that “I’d just finished up a three-year stint as an executive in a drug and alcohol rehab.” Roiz recounted how he had expanded its operations from a single facility in Los Angeles to multiple locations in California and Washington.
Roiz described the perfect scenario as “making money and helping people. It’s the double bottom line.” Then he saw Sugar Grove and concluded, “This would be a great spot for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.” At the time, the Mountain State had some of the highest rates of addiction and abuse, but only 127 beds for recovery.
Almost immediately the base entertained two suitors. The State of West Virginia’s Department of Corrections saw a chance to move the women’s prison from Lakin, touting its facilities as opportunities to develop skills training to help inmates upon release. KVC, a non profit that works with foster children, saw Sugar Grove as a campus for its program to educate children coming out of foster care and other problematic environments.
The prison remains in Lakin and KVC chose the former campus of West Virginia Tech in Kanawha County for its needs.
Gene McConnell, former Pendleton County Commission president, noted that “political posturing” and concerns over available workforce contributed to the prison not relocating. He said if an organization can neither build a workforce in the area nor entice sufficient workers to move, “the location is not considered.”
As Roiz searched for tenants for the base, his company continued to pay the steep costs of maintenance, as well as annual property taxes. His mission lay in finding an entity, or combination of entities, that would use the entire base, not just parts of it.
Another promising potential tenant was Meridian Health, based in Tennessee. Roiz explained that their CEO, Wes Mason, “had a lot of experience with government contracts.” Meridian put together a plan that would also involve Highland Hospital in Charleston and the Gersh network of autism academies. The base would serve a dual purpose with Meridian running behavioral health and addiction related treatments.
Gersh, which now operates autism academies in New York State, Washington State, and Puerto Rico, would operate an educational facility on the base.
After a year, unfortunately, as Roiz described it, Mason was “over his head.” With all other facilities run by Meridian being relatively small, “he’d never been on the hook like this before.”
Roiz said of Kevin Gersh, who ran the network of autism facilities, “his dedication was always there.” The company CEO even lived in base housing. Eventually, resources grew scarce and the entire project fell through.
He then turned his attention away from behavioral health, addiction recovery, and education to looking at government contractor, saying, “I’ve solicited everyone you can imagine.” The growth of cybersecurity as a government focus opened some potential opportunity. A Utah based cybersecurity company looked closely at the base, as did the federal government searching for a cybercommand facility.
The facility received the backing of Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and a plan emerged to have the West Virginia National Guard assume ownership with a federal cybercommand facility put in place. “All of a sudden, cybercommand went silent,” Roiz said, then added, “I’m not sure what happened at all.”
Meanwhile, Roiz continues to invest money into maintenance, saying also, “We’re paying property taxes every year with no revenue coming in.”
Eighteen months ago, the call came for the most recent potential option to utilize the base.
Ownership of the base with no paying tenants comes with a high cost. Roiz estimates that “our costs average $30,000 a month, plus interest expenses and mortgage.” He added, “That’s with no repairs, but there are always repairs.” One recent repair cost came from paying $20,000 to replace the streetlights.
McConnell, who worked on trying to find a base tenant for several years, said, “The greatest obstacle in getting a tenant there has been, and still is, the location.”
Laura Brown, executive director of the combined Pendleton and Grant County Economic and Community Development Authority, said that “Just this year, the EDA has brought visitors from the state to tour the base.” She added that the EDA is also putting together an event for state economic development and elected leaders to experience the base.
Moving forward, Roiz and county officials continue to work on ideas and seek out tenants. He said that the base is well-regarded and that, in terms of the ability to compete for tenants, “I don’t want people to think that Pendleton is too small to count.”