MADISON — Boone County Economic Development Corporation and Authority Director Kris Mitchell expanded on a story published by WSAZ News on Oct. 2 that stated the West Virginia National Guard was going to move its operations off of the former Hobet Mining site, currently referred to as the Rock Creek Development.
After Gov. Jim Justice announced on Sept. 16 that the guard would host a major, regional, full-scale disaster training exercise there in August 2021, the Boone Economic Development Office told WSAZ that, while it supports the military, it was not in favor of having specific explosives on the property.
Justice’s announcement referred to a nine-day exercise that would be conducted in coordination with United States Northern Command, the National Guard Bureau and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Training scenarios will involve land-based and airborne operations across a wide scope of disaster-related mission requirements, including chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives operations, advanced medical response and search-and-rescue activities.
Mitchell said her office hasn’t spoken to the National Guard since 2018; it was after her office reached out to the Guard regarding complaints they had received from citizens around the site that they found out the guard was pulling out.
“We were concerned, and, yes, we expressed that concern — and this was the response we received,” she said.
Mitchell said she was directed to speak with the media by her board.
“Yes, I had talked to my board (Economic Development Corporation) when the governor’s press release came out about how we need to handle this and they said if you need to go public, then go public,” she said. “They said we’ve got to get some kind of response.”
She continued, “There is no reason that we can’t co-exist and we don’t have the legal authority to remove them from that or any other property. We want to work with them and we want to work it out, but we don’t want to read about it in the newspaper.”
Mitchell said board Chairman Eddie Hendricks, who also serves as Boone County Commission president, had reached out to the guard to request a time to sit down and discuss the matter; he was told someone might reach out to him next week.
Mitchell said the primary advantage for Boone County in having the National Guard on the site for the last two-and-a-half years was the potential for infrastructure in the future that could facilitate more business.
“At no point did we tell them that we weren’t willing to work with them,” Mitchell concluded.
West Virginia National Guard Major Gen. James Hoyer was contacted for this story on Oct. 5; he said via a press conference later that morning that the decision was made after information was received from the Boone County Economic Development office.
“We received information that the local economic development office no longer wanted the National Guard to participate in efforts at Hobet, and we have a national exercise that we have been slated to take on for next year and bring in a couple thousand individuals from across the country. It is a significant opportunity for the guard as well as an economic development opportunity, and we needed to make a decision quickly to address that and we’ll continue to do what we can to help the folks of Boone County, but it appears that with the economic development authority and the work at Hobet with Boone County doesn’t make any sense anymore.”
Senator Ron Stollings called the situation “unfortunate.”
“Again, this is another disappointment, and the first one came six months into the Gov. Justice administration when they pulled the plug on the whole operation,” he said. “We thought having the Guard on board, they could help with infrastructure and things that dealt with manufacturing jobs. It wasn’t the typical package of infrastructure investment, but it was hope. Boone County has fallen hard on our face and that didn’t have to be.”
Stollings said access is key to the site being utilized to its maximum potential. He said he is in no way anti-military, but he expected more.
“They’ve been there for three years and I had hoped for more in terms of investment by this point,” he said. “With Boone County’s contribution to the general revenue fund for all of those years, and since we have a strategic plan for post-mine land use, we could have gone forward with this.”
Boone County Del. Rodney Miller wants to see more unity and communication at all levels.
“It seems like there is confusion going on and everyone needs a seat at the table,” he said. “For this county, we need to do better than that. We’re at a crossroads here, and we need all hands on deck and we’ve got to work as a team. It’s as simple as that.”
Boone County Commissioner Brett Kuhn said he is concerned about the long-term ramifications of the National Guard leaving the site.
“I don’t think that, short-term, we were gaining any benefit from the Guard being there,” he said. “What is this going to do to that road project and what will it do to the potential for getting infrastructure up there? How will this affect us five or ten years from now?”
Kuhn added, “I will tell you right now, when you read about this, as opposed to being in the loop, it is very disappointing. Even though the guard was working with the EDA and not directly with the commission, we’ve got to be in the loop and at the table in this process.”