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Legislators Debate Fate Of Repossessed Juvenile Center Near Custer

A legislative committee approved a bill Wednesday that would prevent the governor from putting the former STAR Academy juvenile detention center back up for sale. 

State government closed the rural Custer campus in 2016. In 2017, the state sold the campus on a $2.34 million contract for deed. The buyer attempted to convert the campus into a multipurpose business park with residential, light industrial and commercial tenants. 

Last year, the buyer missed payments, and the state repossessed the campus. The buyer’s tenants were given until this March to leave, and the future of the campus has been in limbo. 

A bill from state Sen. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, would require the governor to draft a plan by the end of this year for repurposing the campus, rather than selling it again. 

In testimony Wednesday to the Senate State Affairs Committee, Russell said the STAR Academy was a place where troubled kids got the help they needed.  

“It really gave them a chance in life,” Russell said. “Well, now, I don’t know if you’ve been hearing this from your school administrators, but essentially what’s happening is now they’re being sentenced to school because we have no place to put them. Very short-sighted on our part. And the schools are really having a serious difficulty.” 

Russell’s bill faces opposition, including from Mike Leidholt, the secretary of the state Department of Corrections. Leidholt said it’s difficult to attract qualified, professional staff members to work in rural Custer, and he said the campus is too large, too old and too expensive to maintain. 

“So I think for the best interest of the taxpayers of South Dakota, it’s best not to have that ongoing expense,” Leidholt said. “Let’s turn this over to a use that could potentially be on the tax rolls of Custer County and bring some benefit to Custer County.” 

The Senate State Affairs Committee endorsed Russell’s bill by a vote of 5-4. Its next stop is the full Senate.