Six years after ownership of the former Lurleen B. Wallace Developmental Center property in Decatur was transferred to the Alabama National Guard to develop as a regional training facility, it is being used only on drill weekends and local officials are pushing for a more impactful use of the U.S. 31 site.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who was involved in the effort to transfer ownership, said “the current use is not what we were promised when the Guard took ownership of the property.”
The Guard's planned training facility would have included barracks, a medical facility and other amenities.
“The Decatur Training Site is now being used as a multi-purpose weekend training site by Alabama National Guard units from primarily the northern part of the state,” the Guard said in a statement last week. It has spent or is spending more than $9 million on improvements there, it said.
A ceremony held in August 2013 marked the transfer of ownership of the 160-acre property on U.S. 31 from the Department of Mental Health to the Alabama National Guard. Orr spoke at the event, along with former Gov. Robert Bentley and Alabama's former adjutant general Maj. Gen. Perry G. Smith. Plans announced were to repurpose the site, which had been vacant for 10 years, as a regional training facility, providing a place for field training exercises and annual training for Alabama's Guard units.
Since the transfer of ownership, Maj. Gen. Sheryl Gordon assumed duties as the adjutant general of the Alabama National Guard, in July 2017.
Gordon “doesn’t appear to share that vision” for the site, said Orr, adding that commitments included some permanent staff there and a high volume of trainees coming through the facility.
“The current use is not acceptable and is not sufficient for such a valuable piece of real estate,” Orr said.
Gordon said the Guard has “had to make some tough decisions regarding use of training resources. Unfortunately, due to limited availability of federal funding and construction cost escalation, we have not been able to upgrade the Decatur Training Site as originally envisioned.
“However, the Alabama National Guard has improved the facilities and grounds significantly and will continue to maintain and use the Decatur Training Site for local training events.”
Asked if it is looking to sell the property, the Guard said it is now “open to engaging in partnerships for mutually beneficial relationships at the Decatur Training Site.”
Orr said he’s showing the property to various state and federal governmental agencies.
“Assuming there were enough jobs available, we would look to transfer ownership, if another branch of government is interested in the property," he said.
The Morgan County Economic Development Association is aware the site could also be available for nongovernmental use.
“We have the former Wallace Center property in our files for any inquiries that might be a fit,” said Jeremy Nails, president and CEO of MCEDA. “Any inquiry would have to be negotiated through the National Guard.”
The ownership of the adjacent North Alabama Regional Hospital property was also transferred to the Guard. The hospital closed to patients in June 2015.
“Through partnerships, the Alabama National Guard seeks to improve readiness, improve efficiency, conserve resources, enhance employee development, increase capabilities, elevate customer service, maximize recruiting and retention, and benefit our members, our community, and our state,” the Guard said.
The Guard said that, in all, it has spent or is now spending more than $9.8 million at the site. Improvements include site cleanup and demolition or abatement of functionally obsolete buildings, extensive renovations of the main administrative building and numerous other buildings, security fencing of the training site perimeter, ongoing on-site security, parking area improvements and a road and sidewalk repair contract.
“It’s a beautiful piece of property with a lot of potential,” Nails said. “I feel confident that we can find something that fits by working with the National Guard, our elected officials and our local and state partners.”
The Wallace facility, which opened on Sept. 1, 1971, was the state's first regional developmental mental health center, with 40 residents, growing to 193 residents by the end of its first year of operation. At its peak in 1975, it had 400 residents and more than 650 employees. It closed on Oct. 31, 2003.
“At one time, the Wallace Center had approximately 20 separate one-story buildings, not including the hospital on the hill,” Nails said. “Many of them were cottages where the patients lived.”
“The first thing the Guard did was to improve all of the infrastructure at the site,” upgrading electrical, sewer and water services, Orr said.
“The property could be attractive to many potential developments,” Nails said. “Frontage along Highway 31 could be retail and commercial,” and the middle section of the site could be used for mixed-use office, retail and residential, he said.
The back of the property adjacent to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge could be very attractive for tourism, recreational and/or residential developments, Nails said.
“We will continue to work with the National Guard, Sen. Orr and others — the city of Decatur, Morgan County, Chambers of Commerce — to make sure that any potential projects and developers are aware of the property if it’s a potential fit, and beneficial to all interested stakeholders,” Nails said.