The hits just keep coming for the Southern Black Hills, as in a decision that was probably a foregone conclusion months, if not years ago, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said it has finalized its decision to reconfigure the VA Black Hills Health Care System and close a major part of the historic VA hospital in Hot Springs. It was yet another punch in the gut for the struggling Southern Hills on the heels of the closure of STAR Academy south of Custer and the downturn of the BNSF Railroad, which hurt Edgemont.
All three closures hurt all of the communities of the Southern Hills, as all three had employees from each of the Southern Hills towns. Couple that with the downturn of the coal industry, which also employed many local citizens, and the economy in the area continues to reel. So what can we do about it?
It’s time to roll up our sleeves and go to work. There are now no less than four structurally sound, large facilities in the Southern Black Hills that are now empty or underutilized, just begging for some company or industry to take hold. The biggest in our neck of the woods, of course, is the now vacant STAR Academy. Not far behind it will be what is soon to be a vacant hospital and clinic building, as Regional Health builds a new hospital and vacates the current facility. The facility will be left standing by Regional Health, with the caveat being another competing healthcare facility cannot move into building.
It’s safe to assume that the Custer Area Economic Development Corp. is immersed in ways to fill these buildings in a way that will add to the community. We believe there has to be some businesses out there that would gladly come to town and set up shop in these buildings. Not having to construct a new building for whatever industry they are involved could be a big selling point to the right company. They are out there; they just have to be found. The city can be a major player in working with economic development to help attract a business into the old hospital building and potentially even the old high school. While the Armory is still used, only a small portion of the building is utilized by the school district.
The state will have more of the say on what happens to the former STAR Academy, as well as the other former Department of Corrections building that last held the EXCEL program before it was shuttered as well. There have been several ideas tossed out as to what to do with those facilities and campuses, with ideas ranging from a drug treatment and rehabilitation center to a resort or golf course.
We are in favor of a solution that brings year-round, high paying jobs to Custer. The closure of STAR Academy took many of those jobs away, and more such jobs are desperately needed. The facilities are here. We just need some companies and leaders with vision to set up shop in our town and strengthen our economy once more. We’ve taken enough hits over the past year. Recovery starts as those buildings gain occupants.