UPDATE: Military training facility slated for former Hobet mining site
A military training facility is slated soon for the former Hobet mining site in Boone County, according to a release from Gov. Jim Justice's office.
It reports that "immediate economic activity" will result there -- the result of a joint venture of the Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation and the West Virginia Army National Guard (WVANG).
Starting in January, the WVANG will use part of the property for a military training facility for all branches of the service.
“We’re going to get started out there next month, we have a wonderful chance to bring in millions of dollars in investments from military contractors and we are preserving all possibilities for future industrial uses at Rock Creek,” Justice said in the release.
In the release, WVANG Adjutant General James Hoyer said “Designating Hobet as a primary mobility training site is on the table and starting right after the first of the year we intend on doing that.There has also been interest expressed from a couple of Defense service contractors and manufacturers to do training, testing and evaluation there.”
The training facility would include existing and to-be-constructed driving courses for different military vehicles.
Former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had announced plans to transform the former mountaintop mine site into an economic venture.
Original plans had called for a $100 million four lane road into the site. Use of the existing haul road, though, with $30 million in improvements will serve the current access needs, Gov. Justice said.
DOT Secretary Tom Smith said the upgrades include an improved connection to the site at U.S. 119, a bridge to cross the Little Coal River, and pavement and slope work.
“Ultimately, we are going to save a lot of money,” Smith said in the release.
Commerce Secretary H. Wood Thrasher said his office “will keep pursuing” development at Rock Creek as has been planned from the beginning.
“We are going to continue to work to make sure it is utilized to its highest and best use,” Thrasher said in the release.
An industrial site project, announced under the Tomblin administration, that previously got the green light from the Justice administration shortly before taking office, is now changing plans and shifting directions, according to a state senator, following a meeting last week.
The Rock Creek Development Park, to be built at the old Hobet surface mine site, is estimated to span a dozen acres in Boone and Lincoln counties. State leadership has compared to the size of Huntington or Charleston.
In a Thursday afternoon conference call, Sen. Ron Stollings (D-Boone, 07) says he learned of the latest developments with the project. Sunday, he told WSAZ "there has certainly been a change in purpose." He says the main thing that has changed is the access road and the focus of the project.
The West Virginia state senator says he was on the call with several people, including West Virginia National Guard Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, Secretary of Commerce Woody Thrasher, Chief of Staff Mike Hall and Secretary of Transportation Tom Smith.
Sen. Stollings says there is a lot of concern from the current administration surrounding the landscape of the former surface mine site and the cost of redeveloping it. He says there "appears to be" conflicting geotech data, in regards to what can be built on the land.
WSAZ's media partners at MetroNews reported in December 2016 that the West Virginia Division of Highways secured $58 million to fund a 2.6 mile four-way highway at the development park. The funds, that cannot be used for any other project, would pay for the highway near the U.S. Route 119/State Route 3 intersection in Boone County up the mountain to the former Hobet mountaintop site.
In place of the previous plan, that is already funded, Sen. Stollings says there will be a "major enhancement" to the current haul road, so that it connects directly to U.S. Route 119 and will not be as steep or curvy. WSAZ has reached out to the governor's office to find out how much that enhancement will cost but has not heard back yet.
In a Facebook post, the state senator says the purpose of the project has changed from developing an industrial park to "military training and some forms of agriculture." He also says that he is not sure how much money will have gone to waste, as a result of the changing plans.
The state senator is in favor of the previous plans and told WSAZ Sunday that the concept that it is costly to develop the land at the old mine site was "very disheartening."
"The Rock Creek or the Hobet project literally is a mechanism for us to totally grow and transform our economy from a totally coal-dependent economy to one that's much more vibrant, diversified," he told WSAZ Sunday. "And really change the region, not just Boone County but Lincoln County, Logan, etc."
Sen. Stollings wants to be clear that the original purposes for the land are not off the table, and there is still a possibility for the original plans to come to fruition at Rock Creek.
In January, the Justice administration announced the site would have housing sites, retail sites and industrial sites.
WSAZ reported back in January 2017, nearly one year ago, that the development project would move forward after then Gov.-elect Jim Justice's administration held a news conference Jan. 12, just days before now Gov. Justice took office.
At that time, the administration said Gov. Justice was "all in" for the redevelopment of the site.
The idea behind the Rock Creek Development Park was spearheaded by former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, hoping the project would diversify the economy in the state, as well as create jobs for southern West Virginians and residents in the surrounding regions.
"It's hard not to get behind this project, so Governor Justice is enthusiastic," Chief of Staff Nick Casey said during the press conference. "This isn't just a road to nowhere. This is an opportunity."
The project is estimated to cost about $100 million, but state leaders previously said they expect federal money to fund most of the project.
The West Virginia National Guard has already been using part of the property for training, since the spring. They were the first unit to invest in the project.
Sen. Stollings says he is looking for the silver lining and hoping that the military presence will be an anchor for future development.
WSAZ has reached out to the Justice administration for comment and has not heard back. We will keep trying.