by KATE SHUNNEY
The Morgan County Economic Development Authority (EDA) is moving ahead in negotiations with a Maryland-based healthcare group that wants to buy an old school building to turn into a drug treatment center in downtown Berkeley Springs.
In a special meeting last Tuesday, September 15, the EDA set up a subcommittee to work with attorney Richard Gay in drafting a response to a proposed sales agreement from Lotus Healthcare group.
Lotus Healthcare Group has made an offer to buy the old Bath district school building on Green Street and renovate the building to create an 80-bed inpatient drug detox and treatment center.
EDA board members earlier this month voted to enter into a 30-day non-binding negotiation period with Lotus. That period runs out on October 7, said EDA Director Daryl Cowles.
The Morgan County Commission owns the former school, which has housed public service agencies for the last several decades. The building is now empty. Commissioners two years ago asked the EDA to market and sell the building.
The building and property – 3.2 acres in all – were first listed for sale at more than $900,000. The property is now listed at $300,000. Company and county officials haven’t said publicly how much Lotus Healthcare has offered for the property.
During the public comment period of last Tuesday’s EDA meeting, county resident Jim Burns posed several questions to board members. Burns said he doesn’t question the intentions of the EDA or Lotus, but does not support having a drug treatment center in the school building.
“I strongly suggest that facility be built up on the hill,” he said. A treatment center “campus” should be located elsewhere in the region, he said.
EDA President Larry Omps told Burns that the County Commission asked his board to find a “suitable buyer” who would rehabilitate the school building and bring jobs to the area – two things Lotus has said they will do.
Burns disputed those jobs would be filled by county residents, who may lack the “skill set” to work in a treatment center.
Burns also questioned the location of the proposed center.
“Is it suitable to put a drug rehab facility downtown?” he asked.
Board member Brandy Steele asked Burns to spell out his objections to the location.
“What’s your biggest concern about where it is?” she asked.
Steele challenged Burns to say if he had been able to identify drug treatment centers in any of the places he had travelled around the country.
“Would you be able to tell it’s a drug treatment facility?” she asked.
Commissioner Sean Forney, who owns two downtown businesses – one within a block of the school building – said he doesn’t believe a treatment center would have a negative impact on his business.
“The problem is here. The solution should be here,” Forney said.
“It should have been built here 10 years ago,” said resident Denny Swaim of a proposed treatment center.
Swaim said the last treatment center he took his son was inconspicuous, and looked like a motel.
“I thought I was in the wrong place,” Swaim said.
He said one plus is that Lotus Healthcare has claimed they would not have an outpatient methadone or suboxone clinic attached to their treatment center.
“Others do, and you can watch drug deals going on in the parking lot,” Swaim said.
David Stup, Vice President of Lotus Healthcare Group, said their plan is to offer a 7 to 10-day detox program, followed by a 28-day residential treatment program. An added 28-day treatment program could follow the first, Stup said.
“It is a chronic illness,” said Stup. More interventions lead to better outcomes, he indicated.
EDA board member Mark Garfinkel told the board that an informal survey of downtown business owners found that many were in favor of a treatment center. One main concern for those surveyed was security, he said.
Stup said a treatment center would have a security plan as part of its operations. The company could collaborate with local law enforcement to add to that.
“What impressed me was both of our law enforcement detachments saying they support this,” said Larry Omps, referring to the Berkeley Springs Police Department and Morgan County Sheriff’s Department.
EDA board member Susan Webster asked if Lotus Healthcare would be willing to go talk to the Town of Bath council, on which she serves as Town Recorder. Stup said they would.
Stup said repeatedly his company would be willing to be part of public meetings to answer questions about their proposed center. He said local questions and concerns are the same as those in other places where treatment centers open – a mix of discomfort and desire for services.
“This is the biggest health emergency of this generation,” he said of drug use disorder.
County Prosecutor Dan James said he’s supportive of what he’s heard of the proposed center.
James said last week he had opened five new child abuse and neglect cases in his office and all involved drugs. He said his office is regularly involved in trying to find beds for offenders in drug treatment programs – often out of state.
“I’m glad there’s interest in using the facility for something good,” he said.
Following a closed session where EDA members talked with their attorney and Lotus representatives waited outside, the board appointed Mark Garfinkel and Chris Domich to work with Cowles and attorney Richard Gay to draft a response, with possible changes, to the Lotus sales agreement.
Cowles said even if a sales agreement is finalized by October 7, Lotus Healthcare Group will have a 90-day window during which they can do a full engineering and environmental assessment of the Green Street school building before deciding whether to proceed with a purchase.
The EDA will meet next on Tuesday, September 29.