EDA board agrees to non-binding contract with drug treatment company for old school

by Kate Shunney

The east side of the county-owned former school building on Green Street. The building and lot are being looked at for a residential detox and rehabilitation center.

Members of the Morgan County Economic Development Authority (EDA) Board of Directors last week agreed to a 30-day non-binding letter of intent to sell the former Bath District School building on Green Street to a company wanting to operate an 80-bed inpatient drug treatment center.

It is the third viable offer on the building since the EDA has tried to sell it, said EDA Director Daryl Cowles.

During an afternoon meeting on Tuesday, September 1 that was attended by more than 30 members of the public, the EDA board agreed to the contract. Under it, both parties – the EDA and Lotus Healthcare Group – have 30 days to explore the detailed specifics of a sale of the former building.

Parties to the discussions have declined to name the price being offered for the building and 3.2-acre property, which is actively marketed by the EDA at a price of $300,000. It was first listed for over $900,000 two years ago.

An offer for the building was supposed to be the subject of a joint meeting of the EDA and Morgan County Commission on Tuesday afternoon. County officials cancelled the meeting roughly two hours before it was to begin, but the EDA board went ahead with their meeting.

Members of the public both in support of a drug rehab facility and against the opening of a facility in that area of downtown Berkeley Springs attended the meeting, Commissioner Sean Forney said.

The agreement follows on the heels of a 90-minute closed session discussion about the proposal at an August 25 EDA meeting. When members of the county board came back into open session, they said they would not be voting on the proposal at that time.

Following that meeting, it became public that the proposal involved creation of a drug rehabilitation facility in the former school building that once housed the Starting Points family resource agency, the former Senior Center and the Boys & Girls Club.

Ryan Collison, the CEO and chief stockholder of Lotus Healthcare Group, said the group’s vision is to rehabilitate the former school building and operate an 80-bed “high-end detox and residential treatment facility,” he told The Morgan Messenger last week.

Collison said his company, based out of Maryland, has looked at West Virginia as an area of great need and they continue to look at several areas of the state to potentially locate treatment centers.

Collison said his company is looking to create a “regional footprint” with behavioral health centers in multiple areas, potentially.

The company has yet to take an in-depth look at the building, Collison said, but they like the Green Street site and believe it would be a good fit for an in-patient treatment center.

He has heard community concerns about the location of a treatment center in a residential area at the edge of Berkeley Springs’ historic and tourist district.

“They feel like it attracts the wrong crowd,” Collison said.

In his experience, if a patient leaves a treatment center against medical advise, “the last place they want to hand out is on the corner near their therapist.”

Some worry that a treatment center would draw drug dealers or addicts to the neighborhood.

“The treatment center doesn’t attract that kind of element,” Collison said. “When people walk into a treatment center, they’re ready to make a change.”

Lotus has not yet gone through any West Virginia regulatory steps to secure approval for a behavioral health facility at the site, or to get planning approval from the Town of Bath for renovation work.

Collison expects there to be a significant investment in fully renovating the three-story brick structure to turn it into a treatment center, and said his company is prepared for that expense.

The last company Collison led as CEO was responsible for the opening of the Maryland Detox House in Linthicum Heights, the state’s first freestanding detox center, he said. He is proud of that facility and what it has offered patients.

Collison said Lotus has a focus on serving Medicaid patients in treatment, and sees West Virginia as an area of high need.

EDA members have questioned multiple aspects of the proposal, said EDA Director Daryl Cowles. Some of that discussion has been during closed sessions and some in last week’s meeting.

Among the concerns are whether Lotus is capable and willing to follow through on their proposal, and what impact that would have on the surrounding properties.

County officials have said they are eager to put the property on the county’s tax rolls. It has been in a non-profit, non-taxable status since it was built.

Commissioners and Cowles have said their priority is to sell the former school to a private entity that will bring jobs and a positive economic impact to the county and Berkeley Springs.

Cowles said EDA members are now doing their “due diligence” in gathering input from the public and looking at the various aspects of the proposal during the 30-day contract period.

The EDA’s next regularly-scheduled meeting is on Tuesday, September 29. The proposal may be taken up for discussion more at that time, said Cowles.