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A wave of closures and consolidations in wilderness therapy and youth treatment programs in Utah will take nearly 200 jobs from Wayne County alone.
Three programs for troubled young people, owned by Aspen Education Group, constitute the biggest employer in the county, which is home to the redrock landscape of Capitol Reef National Park, said Les Prall, of the Governor's Office of Economic Development. Without Aspen, he predicted unemployment in Wayne County will rise to nearly 22 percent."That's the highest I've ever seen for an unemployment rate in a county," Prall said. "It's a very major thing, it's huge."
The tightening national credit market was a big factor forcing the closures, said Aspen President Phil Herschman. Facing price tags of $18,000 to $60,000 for weeks or months in the intensive therapeutic programs, parents often turned to home equity or other loans, he said.
Education loans for therapy "no longer exist," Herschman said. "The demand had just dried up dramatically."It's a trend that affects the entire multimillion-dollar industry in Utah.
"We haven't had as many closures here, mainly because a lot of the programs are just barely hanging on to try and save themselves," said state licensing director Ken Stettler.
CRC Health Group, Aspen's California-based parent company, will close two programs in Utah: An equine and behavioral therapy boarding school in Wayne County, and a substance abuse treatment facility for teens in St. George. Another Wayne County drug rehab program will move to Idaho. The state's longest-running wilderness therapy program, Aspen Achievement Academy, will move from Wayne County to Lehi and merge with another program, Outback Expeditions. A live-in treatment center for teens in Draper will merge with a similar facility in Syracuse.
Aspen is aiming to help most students graduate from their programs by winding down operations over several months, Herschman said.
They stopped accepting new students this week. About 85 percent of the approximately 200 students are expected to be finished before the closures come, and the others will be moved to similar programs.
As for the more-than 500 employees, some will get new jobs with other Aspen programs, especially those from the excursion-focused programs like Aspen Achievement. Others will be laid off, Herschman said. Exactly how many won't be clear until July or August, when the wind-down is complete.
Laidoff employees will be offered a severance package and a bonus to stay through the end of the transition period, a move Stettler applauded.
It will ensure that staffing levels stay high, so "kids aren't left without the care, treatment and supervision they need," he said. The state will monitor the transition process.State inspectors have not leveled any recent sanctions on any of the affected programs, Stettler said.
Meanwhile, Wayne County, population 2,500, is trying to prepare for the blow. When another wilderness therapy program closed in 2003, it had a ripple effect on grocery stores, restaurants and other shops as the tens of thousands of dollars spent in the community disappeared.
That will likely happen again, said Julia Deleeuw, manager at Royal's Grocery Store."[Aspen] did get quite a bit of stuff from us," she said. "We're not a very big community ... it's going to have a big impact."
Aspen Education Group operates 38 programs in 13 states. In addition the facilities in Utah, two programs in Vermont and Oregon will also close.