SUGAR GROVE, W.Va. — If the District’s pricey real estate market has you down, the General Services Administration has a deal for you.
Just three hours away, for $1 million — the price of a single-family home in some quadrants of the city — you can buy 80 homes on 122 acres, together with a gym, full-size basketball court, bowling alley, soccer field, and police and fire stations. Did we mention the 12 guest cabins on the opposite end of the property?
Sugar Grove Station, nestled between the Allegheny Mountains and the south fork of the Potomac River, is the ultimate get-away-from-it-all destination. Seven miles from George Washington National Forest, it sits in the midst of a 13,000-square-mile area of the United States known as the National Radio Quiet Zone. All radio communications in the area are restricted. Translated: No pesky cellphone calls from pollsters asking about Donald Trump.
And traffic? Practically nonexistent.
“Free from noise and smog, this area of West Virginia presents an ever-changing picture that delights the eye and rests the nerves,” reads a description in the glossy GSA sales brochure. “You would be hard pressed to find such fresh air and church-like stillness anywhere else.”
In its own way, the former naval base brings together two Washington traditions: earmarks and espionage.
For years it served as the Navy’s ear, gathering communications from planes, ships and stations throughout the world.
Documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed its other role — as one of 10 “signals-intelligence activity designators” used by the National Security Agency to collect international cellphone location information and other data. An array of giant parabolic dishes obscured by thick forest cover are housed on a mountain ridge just over a mile southeast of the main property. These, however, are not part of the sale. The NSA, through a spokeswoman, had no comment on the matter.
For nearly a half-century, the base served as an anchor for the tiny towns that dot rural Pendleton County — 7,471 residents spread out over nearly 700 square miles. In an area where good jobs are hard to come by or require a one-hour trip over winding mountain roads, the loss of civilian jobs with their benefits and health coverage was deeply felt.
Sugar Grove, the town, located a few miles from the base, is the kind of place where people can keep a secret. It’s the kind of place where you can leave your doors open and your keys in the car. The proprietor of the biggest shop, Bowers Store, which opened in 1929, sells groceries, antiques and guns. There is no cash register. Instead, John Bowers, 87, tallies his daily sales in a loose-leaf notebook. Short a few bucks? Credit isn’t a problem.
Jim Moats, 51, grew up here and, unlike his classmates, wanted to stay close to home after graduation. But when it came time to find a job, there simply wasn’t one.
“When I was young, I tried to get on here like everyone else,” he said about the base, the only active military installation in the state. So he left. He worked in Parkersburg, W.Va., Cincinnati and — horrors — Washington. Then in 1990, he got his foot in the gate at Sugar Grove as a contractor. When news came down two years ago that the base would be closed, it was like a kick in the gut.
Like others, he lost his job when the base shut down at the end of September and hasn’t worked full time since. He had a chance to transfer to other naval installations — Virginia Beach and Yorktown in Virginia — but couldn’t bear to leave. Those other towns, he said, just weren’t him.
“This is where home is,” he said.
For Bowers, the shopkeeper, it wasn’t just the economics. The base was a good neighbor, he said, opening its gates for basketball tournaments, fireworks shows and barbecues. Bowers rented homes to those who lived off base and many were frequent customers of his general store — the only place to get a Powerade and a thick slab of the best-tasting Colby cheese, not to mention gas, for miles. And those prime rib suppers served in front of the giant stone fireplace at the Robert C. Byrd Community Center? Oh, how he misses those.
Even after word of the shutdown, local officials hoped that Uncle Sam would keep it going.
Sugar Grove Station had flirted with closure several times throughout the years, but somehow the military — no doubt with a helpful push from Byrd, the former U.S. senator — always found it a new mission.
But that was not to be the case this time around. The Navy had begun to consolidate its operations, and the base was shuttered.
Gene McDonnell, president of the three-member Pendleton County Commission, tried to sell the Department of Veterans Affairs on the idea of a recovery center for vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He thought the rural location — away from the hustle and bustle of just about everything — would provide the perfect setting for soldiers recovering from trauma. But VA took a pass. State officials floated the idea of a women’s prison on the campus, but that eventually faded amid concerns about cost. And so it has been left to the GSA to find a new owner.
Online bidding on the property opened in February. So far, there have been no takers. But the folks from the GSA are hopeful that will change once prospective buyers get a look-see. At $1 million, the price may be right, but keeping up the extensive grounds will be costly, roughly $4.6 million a year.
Pulling up to the front gate of the base is like entering a small city. There’s the police station on your left, the commissary on your right — next to the six-bay fire station. Follow the road up the hill and you come to a small neighborhood of well-kept homes. Even though it has been closed for six months, Sugar Grove has been kept in immaculate shape. The grass is trimmed, the playground looks freshly painted, and there isn’t a single pothole to be found. The only thing missing: people.
It’s easy to see how it became a community gathering spot — and why many think it would be a shame to see it abandoned.
That’s why William Smith Jr. (that’s Junior, please) recently found himself standing in front of the brick building that formerly housed the offices of the base commander and other higher-ups. It was a slightly overcast day in late April. Despite the gloom, a cheerful red and white “Open House” sign stood in a small patch of grass in front of the building. A light breeze rustled through the tall trees. It was an undeniably peaceful setting.
Smith, a boyish-looking 51, managed the base’s water system for years. He, like Moats and others, were left without work when the base was shuttered. But Smith got lucky — he was recruited by the company hired to take care of the base until a new owner could be found.
These days, he’s the only person who works on the vast property. After several months in the job, he pretty much knows most every nook and cranny in the place (except, he jokes, for the very, very dark ones, or the ones for which he can’t find keys).
The GSA has floated many ideas for what Sugar Grove Station could become: corporate retreat, university, spa, movie studio or mountain resort.
“It’s got all the makings of something wonderful,” said the GSA’s Kris Carson.
At least two dozen interested parties made the long drive to get here. Whether there was a movie mogul among them was not clear. While some, such as Jim Wilson, were more than happy to talk about their vision for the property, others, like the gentleman from Vienna, Va., who politely declined to give his name, were more circumspect.
Potential investors such as Brian Clevenger, a retired veteran who wanted to see whether Sugar Grove could be repurposed as a call center and training site for returning veterans, and Marilyn L. Jacobson, the chief financial officer and general council for KVC Health Systems, were greeted warmly by smiling GSA staffers and a semi-official delegation of community officials, including two of the three representatives from the Pendleton County Commission and a few others along just to see the spectacle. A full-color brochure listed available tax credits, including the Corporate Headquarters Credit, the “Five-for-Ten” program and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s “Sunny Day Fund.” The guests were offered fresh fruit, granola bars and water.
Then it was time to take a look.
Smith led them across the roadway, up a grassy hill. He stopped near a set of duplexes arranged around a small parking lot. He invited the folks to tour one of the units, noting the ample parking and good light.
“This is nice,” said one man, pausing to look out the sliding-glass door to see a mini-patio. “Yes, this could work.”
“Good closet space,” remarked another. And so it went.
A stroll by the brightly colored playground. Larger duplexes on the hill, some with carports, others with a view of the woods.
Jacobson saw possibilities around every corner. She, KVC President Jason R. Hooper and the company’s chief operations officer, Erin Stucky, had been eyeing the property since they heard it might be sold. KVC, based in Olathe, Kan., already has a presence in the state and would like to build a vocational college for children aging out of the foster-care system.
Standing in front of the brick dormitories, one man turned to Smith.
“So what was the mission of this base?” he asked.
The words hung in the air for just a second too long. And then Smith answered.
“Don’t know,” he said, his face devoid of expression. “And if I did, I don’t know that I could tell you.”
An awkward silence followed. A few folks cleared their throats and Smith went on as if the question had never been uttered.
After taking a look at the water plant, the group dispersed. Smith watched as they dodged raindrops that had begun to fall.
He was pretty certain the GSA would never hear from many of these folks again.
“You can tell who’s serious and who’s just curious,” he said.
GSA officials said they were pleased with the turnout. Nearly 50 people came to the one-day event. A second open house for more serious buyers is planned for Thursday. After that, officials will announce a closing date for bids.
And if Sugar Grove Station does not sell? GSA spokeswoman Sherrie Taylor said in an emailed statement that the sales strategy would be “reassessed” and the property “re-marketed” if a buyer isn’t found after this round.
Even as they hope a deep-pocketed investor will step in, there’s a fatalistic feeling among many residents, who have seen their sons and daughters move far from home because there simply wasn’t any work.
In his most optimistic moments, Bowers, the shopkeeper, sees a casino with slot machines and glittery lights. Not to mention those tasty prime rib dinners.
Smith, however, only shook his head.
“I just don’t know,” he said. “The price is right, but keeping up the place . . .”
Still, it only takes one.
“Things work out,” Smith said as he surveyed the base. “You worry, but they always do.”