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story.lead_photo.caption A map showing the Ouachita Job Corps site

The Arkansas National Guard has shelved plans to expand its program for at-risk youths to the former Ouachita Job Corps facility, meaning both of the once-dueling federal and state proposals for the vacant site have been set aside.

A National Guard spokesman said the agency won't expand its Youth Challenge "any time in the near future" to the federal facility in Royal, about 12 miles west of Hot Springs, because it lacks the necessary money. The program offers life-skills lessons to teenagers who are struggling in school or have dropped out.

The idea surfaced late last year while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considered converting the former Job Corps property into a temporary shelter to house unaccompanied foreign children apprehended at U.S. border.

Federal officials backed away from the idea in March, as President Donald Trump's administration took the reins of power, saying that the department no longer had a need for more shelter space.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, whose 4th Congressional District includes Garland County, supported the National Guard program expansion as an alternative to the shelter. U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton also publicly opposed the shelter but did not state a preferred use.

Westerman spokesman Ryan Saylor said Thursday it was "obviously disappointing" the National Guard won't make use of the site, but that the congressman's office understands the financial challenges to such a project.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service owns the property, which the U.S. Department of Labor managed for the Job Corps program before shutting it down in July 2016.

The Forest Service in a letter to the National Guard last year estimated that it would cost at least $2 million to ready the building for a new use. Expanding Youth Challenge to the Job Corps site would additionally require more money to hire staff and cover day-to-day costs, the Guard has said.

No viable plans to make use of the site have emerged, according to Saylor and Jim Fram, special projects coordinator for the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce.

"It was kind of doubtful from the beginning," Fram said of the National Guard's proposal. "The state, just like everybody else, is kind of strapped [for money]. That wasn't something that could be readily funded."

The U.S. Forest Service's regional office did not immediately provide answers to questions about the future of the facility.

The National Guard on Dec. 4 sent a memo to the Forest Service indicating it wanted to use the property to expand the Youth Challenge program. Two weeks later, officials with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department toured the site to assess whether it could serve as a temporary shelter for unaccompanied foreigners 17 or younger.

Such shelters are a step between children's detentions and their long-term releases to sponsors with whom the children live while their immigration cases are heard. Many of the children -- 95 percent of whom are from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador -- are fleeing gang violence in their native countries and seek asylum, immigration experts have said.

The number of unaccompanied children referred to the Health and Human Services Department spiked in fiscal 2016 to 59,170, a record level. Data for fiscal 2017 have not been posted to the department's Web site, and a spokesman did not respond to emailed questions Thursday.

During a January conference call with members of Arkansas' congressional delegation, a senior Health and Human Services official expressed a willingness to establish the shelter and later hand off the property to the National Guard if the state wasn't immediately ready to take over the site.

That idea didn't materialize, and the plan was scrapped altogether two months later.

National Guard spokesman Maj. Will Phillips said the Guard has increased its existing Youth Challenge capacity by 100 spots to roughly 250 total at its Camp Robinson location, incremental growth to test whether a broader expansion is "sustainable."

"It's nothing that's going to blow the budget," Phillips said. "We're being fiscally responsible."

Metro on 10/06/2017

Print Headline: Guard forgoes at-risk kids' site

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