The rejection by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services of a proposal from Horizon Behavioral Health in Lynchburg to lease five buildings on the campus of the soon-to-be-closed Central Virginia Training Center is just the latest in the long saga of the state’s efforts to shutter what was once Amherst County’s largest employer.
The fate of the 350-acre site, overlooking the James River and downtown Lynchburg, is now as murky as ever as the June 2020 shutdown looms.
Horizon CEO Damien Cabezas and the local community services board had proposed leasing five of the most modern buildings on the 350-acre CVTC campus. They would have provided a number of mental health services, including residential substance abuse treatment, outpatient services and case management. The buildings themselves are relatively modern and at least a couple have undergone extensive renovations in the last 15 years or so. One building would have continued to provide housing for 12 CVTC residents who would be under Horizon’s care.
Horizon first broached the idea of leasing the buildings in July 2018 and submitted its final proposal to the department on June 19 of this year. It wasn’t until late August that Cabezas and Horizon learned the state had rejected the proposal.
A department spokeswoman told News & Advance reporter Rachel Mahoney the lease proposal “was not financially sustainable and therefore not a viable option into the future.” Translation: Leasing five buildings out of the 92 on the CVTC campus to Horizon would have put the government on the hook for the upkeep of the utility infrastructure to them, evidently something the state didn’t want to take on.
According to Jimmy Ayers, a member of the Amherst County Board of Supervisors, the water and sewer systems on the campus need a $15 million overhaul after years of mostly benign neglect.
And therein lies the problem — and challenge — the CVTC site poses for Amherst County and, indeed, all of Central Virginia.
In 2011, the commonwealth, under the administration of Gov. Bob McDonnell, reached a settlement with the Department of Justice to enhance efforts to mainstream residents of Virginia’s hospitals for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities by putting more money into waivers and vouchers that people could use to pay for small, group-home care. Virginia officials made the decision, on their own, that closure of all but one of the hospitals and sale of their campuses would fund a large portion of the costs of the plan.
Only it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Only the 78-acre campus of the Northern Virginia Training Center. The waiting list for a waiver and voucher has only lengthened in the years since the settlement, and the projected cost to the state has only risen.
The June 30 closure of CVTC will happen. Period.
But what happens to the site itself remains up in the air.
Amherst County and the City of Lynchburg, along with the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, see the site as perhaps the greatest development opportunity in Central Virginia right now. It’s prime real estate with direct access to the U.S. 29 Bypass via the 210 Connector. The views overlooking the James River and historic downtown Lynchburg from the bluff on which it sits are stupendous. And as Lynchburg gains more and more recognition on the national landscape as an up-and-coming, growing and vibrant community, the potential for the site is limitless.
But … .
There are many site-specific challenges that would need to be overcome or addressed, including asbestos in many of the almost 100 buildings on campus, historically recognized structures, a large cemetery and that problematic utility system.
Amherst County and various regional groups have set aside $250,000 for a site assessment study and are hoping for matching funds from other governmental entities. Local government officials and development experts with the Business Alliance argue that such a study, detailing exactly is on the site, is an absolute necessity before any redevelopment can — or should — take place.
As Amherst’s Ayers put it in an interview with The News & Advance, “The uncertainty of its future is concerning; it should be concerning for everyone in our community.”
The hitch is that the state sees the site in entirely different terms than officials here in Central Virginia, which might explain Richmond’s reluctance to chip in for a site study. To state officials, come June 30, CVTC’s 350 acres will simply be surplus property which can be sold as-is to the highest bidder. That it could be an economic driver for the entire Central Virginia region if redeveloped wisely is of little concern to the bureaucrats in the capital.
The danger is that Richmond, in its rush to offload the property, will bypass local governments and only give lip service to wanting local input as to the site’s future. If that, in fact, transpires, a golden opportunity will have been missed, solely because of politics and bureaucratic shortsightedness. We can’t let that happen.