Opposition from lawmakers and stakeholders across the country has led the U.S. departments of Labor and Agriculture to reverse a decision about the future of the Job Corps program — saving the Flatwoods center in Southwest Virginia.
Officials in Coeburn and elsewhere in the region said Wednesday night that they were “elated” to learn Flatwoods would remain open.
“It’s a huge win, not only for Coeburn but for Wise County as a whole,” Coeburn Mayor Jeff Kiser said.
The mayor noted that people on both sides of the political aisle and across the region fought to save Flatwoods, which had been slated to close by the end of the year, according to a May announcement.
“This wasn’t about politics,” said Kiser, adding that the community banded together.
Last month, the Labor Department said the U.S. Forest Service [USFS] intended to withdraw from operating the Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers. The Labor Department would take control of the sites and shut down some of the facilities, which would have resulted in the closure of Flatwoods and new operations at the Jacobs Creek Job Corps in Bristol, Tennessee.
Officials at the local, state and federal levels quickly raised concerns about the changes.
A spokesperson for the Agriculture Department [USDA] and Labor Department [DOL] told the Bristol Herald Courier late Wednesday that the USDA no longer intends to transfer the centers to the Labor Department.
“Following robust engagement with stakeholders and members of Congress regarding the future of the USFS Job Corps centers, USDA has notified DOL that the USFS will evaluate the feedback while reviewing its role in Job Corps management and operation,” the spokesperson said.
As a result, the spokesperson said this will allow management to “determine a pathway that will maximize opportunity and results for students, minimize disruptions and improve overall performance and integrity.”
The Labor Department and USDA will conduct a review to determine the appropriate course of action, the spokesperson added.
“As USDA looks to the future, it is imperative the USFS focuses on and prioritizes its core natural resource mission to improve the condition and resilience of our nation’s forests,” the spokesperson said.
Virginia Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, said this is great news for Southwest Virginia, which has been affected by the coal industry’s downturn. Flatwoods, which has a $6 million economic impact, employs many people in the community and has trained hundreds of young people over the years, he said.
Pillion said he went to Washington, D.C., recently to meet with Deputy Assistant Secretary Tom Deuschle, head of the Job Corps, about the importance of Flatwoods. Pillion said Deuschle and others listened and appeared to recognize the site’s impact.
Deuschle told Pillion, however, that there are concerns about student outcomes at Flatwoods.
“It’s a way to correct some deficiencies at the program,” Pillion said.
Although Pillion is a state legislator, he said he felt the need to share information with the Labor Department about the federal program that impacts local residents.
U.S. Rep Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrats, also fought to keep Flatwoods open. They previously said the changes at the Job Corps would result in more than 1,000 lost jobs.
If Flatwoods had closed, Kiser said it would greatly affect the community. In May, the Coeburn Town Council passed a resolution opposing the closing.
Students at the Job Corps sites at Flatwoods and Jacobs Creek have provided many services over the years in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, officials have said.
Kiser said the Job Corps students have worked on numerous projects in Coeburn and surrounding areas over the years, including a project this past week. He added that training projects help the students and the community.
Established in 1964, the mission of the Job Corps program is to train young adults, ages 16 to 24, with educational, social and vocational skills while assisting in the conservation of the nation’s limited public resources.
The Flatwoods site sits on 44 acres just south of Coeburn and can host 180 people. Jacobs Creek can host 170 people on 33 acres.