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Center called 'government at its best'

August 31, 2005|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - With structures that imitate facilities like an airport baggage area, motel rooms and a border crossing site, federal officials say the complex is like no other in the country.

After roughly six years of planning, officials on Tuesday formally opened the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Advanced Training Center near Harpers Ferry, which will be used to train U.S. Customs agents more effectively to protect the country from terrorist threats and terrorist weapons.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner and U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who obtained $24.9 million to build the facility at a 104-acre site off U.S. 340, appeared at an 11 a.m. ceremony to open the facility before a crowd of roughly 200 guests and local and federal officials.

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The training facility, which is spread among several buildings, was described during the ceremony as "government at its best."

Bonner said the facility will be used to train federal agents, who will train other officers.

Bonner said the facility would not have been possible without Byrd, D-W.Va. Bonner praised the senator for the federal funding he won for the complex.

"That ain't easy either," said Byrd, who joked with the crowd, read passages from the Bible and talked about the virtues of West Virginians.

"West Virginians are always on the front lines and proud to be there for our great country. Now, the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, along with our sons and daughters serving in our Armed Forces, will write a new chapter in our efforts to stop terrorism," Byrd said.

Byrd said he arranged meetings between U.S. Customs officials and local residents and officials to ensure that the design of the facility addressed community concerns for noise, traffic and historical protection.

The buildings, with their gray and red-brown colors, are designed to blend with the natural landscape, officials said.

When it comes to the inside of the complex, getting as close to reality as possible was the theme.

In the building that simulates a border crossing, two checkpoint booths are set up on a simulated roadway. Customs agents can use the crossing to practice inspection of vehicles and other exercises.

At another location, a mock airport is set up with a baggage carousel and in another building, two motel rooms were built into a structure for training.

Federal agents will be able to use the motel rooms for a variety of exercises, including how to quickly remove large groups of people from a motel room and search them, said Sean Godsey, a supervisory border patrol agent who was leading a tour of the complex.

Another building was set up to allow federal agents to do exercises in a warehouse setting and a 4-acre lake was built at the site allowing agents to practice boarding boats to perform interdiction efforts, Godsey said.

During tours of the facility Tuesday, federal agents allowed guests to walk onto a dock at the lake to see a special patrol boat. Guests were briefed about the vessel by an agent who does regular patrols on Lake Erie and the Niagara River.

Bonner said the best way to prevent terrorist attacks is to keep terrorists out of the country.

"We are America's front line," Bonner said.

Byrd took that thought further, telling Americans to be wary of statements that the U.S. is waging war abroad to protect the country.

"Don't you believe it," said Byrd, who has been critical of the war in Iraq.

"Fighting in Iraq won't keep them from fighting here. Iraq is something else," Byrd said.

The training facility is off Koonce Road north of Charles Town near the Americast plant. The facility, which can also be used by local police agencies, will have indoor and outdoor firing ranges, although they have not been constructed.

It could be two years before the firing ranges are built, Godsey said.

The rest of the facilities include an administration building with conference rooms, classrooms, a computer lab and a resource library and a welcome center.

The facility will be used to train 12,000 people a year, and officials say there will be economic spinoff effects from the new visitors in town.

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