State looks at ways to ‘Save Cedar Lakes' - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

State looks at ways to ‘Save Cedar Lakes'

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When rumors got out last week that Cedar Lakes Conference Center may close because of funding, Jackson County residents raised their voices.

A rally to "Save Cedar Lakes" is now scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 3 at the center, and at a planning event this week, several elected officials spoke about the need to keep it open.

Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, took to his Facebook page last week to try to calm community fears.

"Great concern and much angst has been generated by premature and inappropriate communications to the employees at Cedar Lakes by unauthorized sources related to the continuing operation of this wonderful facility," Carmichael wrote.

Carmichael said last year's Education Efficiency Audit singled out Cedar Lakes in relation to the $1.9 million the West Virginia Department of Education spent on conferences last year as an opportunity to for changes and savings.

The facility has been affiliated with the Department of Education since it opened in 1950, but it started out with "FFH and FHA Camp" in its name, catering to learning opportunities for Future Farmers of America and the Future Homemakers of America. 

From most accounts, only the name changed when Cedar Lakes was deemed a conference center, and it never quite lived up to the label.

"It was never intended to be a commercial, money-making, profit-oriented facility," explained retired educator John Riddle, who spent five years in the curriculum lab at Cedar Lakes. "The ambiance of that place was always set up to serve students — particularly those in the agriculture, technical, home economics and 4-H fields.

"It was built for permanent use as a learning facility."

For now, Cedar Lakes Foundation member and retired educator Dave Bourgeois says some groups have made commitments to the center years in advance, and rumors of a possible closure aren't helping.

"We need something done quickly," Bourgeois said. "Groups are already concerned about booking future events. Four or five weeks down the road may be too late."

Department of Education Office of Communications Executive Director Liza Cordeiro said the center currently operates with a $1 million shortfall each year, and in light of statewide budget reductions for Fiscal Year 2015, "it seems impossible to continue to operate the facility in its current capacity."

The Cedar Lakes Foundation has already tried to do its part by looking into financial help, such as bringing an oil and gas training facility in an isolated area on the 300-acre center.

Riddle said Cedar Lakes should be able to cut its budget 7.5 percent, like most state agencies have been asked to do, but the Department of Education shouldn't cut Cedar Lakes out entirely to meet its required reductions.

"I think, for the most part, the utilization of the facility by students has been pretty much what it needs to be," he said. "As we well know, the way the economy has been over the last few years, is probably not where it's needed to be when it comes to utilizing it fully."

Riddle said he understands the Department of Education has large workshops with hundreds of people that just aren't feasible to bring to Cedar Lakes — especially when it would require adults to share rooms in a dormitory setting. But he said he didn't think the facility had been used to its fullest extent for smaller workshops.

"There probably needs to be improvements," he said. "In fact, I know there's a need for improvements, but there have already been improvements on roads, the dorm rooms, roofs on the buildings, and they have some of the best food."

Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, said at the rally planning meeting it's important to the entire state to keep Cedar Lakes open.

"I know there is a solution to this, and I'm committed to finding that working with other leaders across the state," Carmichael said. "We'll find a solution and make this work. Nobody envisions this facility being shut down.

"There's obviously going to be some modifications. There is so much heritage, history, education and future benefits to be derived from this facility."

Riddle noted, too, the lesser-known features of Cedar Lakes, including the old log home and the old field school that several schoolchildren tour each year to observe what a one-room school house used to look like.

And he puts a special emphasis on the serene setting observed while crossing the bridge into the facility.

"Historically, what the land was intended to be used for was for educational purposes, not as a profit-making, money-making facility for a business," he reiterated. "There are hundreds of people who walk out there in the evenings, there's bicycle riding, picnicking, little kids fishing in the ponds — it's used, and it's utilized, from the ball teams practicing on the ballfields out there in the grassy areas.

"It's probably one of the most perfect areas I can think of to house something called the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair, … what a loss if we ever close the gate."

 

The State Journal's Special Projects Editor Mike Ruben contributed to this report.