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How does West Virginia save Cedar Lakes?

IN 1950, the state Department of Education established an educational retreat on more than 200 acres of donated land near Ripley in Jackson County.

What followed was the Cedar Lakes Conference Center, which has hosted thousands of meetings and retreats for students and adults over the years.

Many West Virginians have fond memories of camps and retreats there.

Additionally, people from across the state and the country have journeyed to the pristine and bucolic setting for the annual Mountain State Art and Craft Fair.

Cedar Lakes is important to the local economy. About three dozen people work there, and local businesses benefit when visitors come to the retreat.

So it's understandable that when the Department of Education says it may have to cut funding for the beloved camp to meet a possible budget reduction, people become upset.  Rallies are held, a "Save Cedar Lakes Conference Center" Facebook page pops up and supporters turn up at the state Board of Education meeting.

But Cedar Lakes, for all its charm, has issues, most of which were detailed in the recent Education Efficiency Audit by Public Works.

Cedar Lakes is not self-sustaining. About one-third of its budget - $1 million - comes from a state Department of Education subsidy.

Employee costs are high.  State law mandates that Cedar Lakes employees be paid comparable to school personnel, which is higher than salaries in the hospitality industry.  The audit found wages are 45 to 50 percent above the average at competing facilities.

The retreat is underutilized by the state. Cedar Lakes gets only a fraction of the annual conference and training business from the Department of Education and the rest of state government, even though it's only 40 miles from Charleston.

The public doesn't know about Cedar Lakes. A 2008 study by Marshall University found "a lack of awareness by potential visitors of the range of services that are offered.  Before you can expand any business, potential customers must know you exist."

These may be solvable problems, but not by the state Department of Education. Its hands are full trying to fulfill the Constitutional mission of a thorough and efficient education for our children.

The audit suggests Cedar Lakes would be better managed, "by a department with appropriate resources, expertise and mission to such an endeavor, such as the Department of Administration, or even the Department of Education and the Arts."

Maybe, but would another government agency be any more successful in the conference business?

Cedar Lakes officials told the auditors that it's extremely difficult to operate the center as a business. "The constraints associated with state government procedures and policies sometimes limit management's ability to function effectively."

Naturally, the best way to make ends meet at Cedar Lakes, or any other conference center, is have the private sector run it, but it's going to be hard to find a willing buyer for a place that's losing money.

This is a painful but necessary debate about the costs and obligations of government.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.


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