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Visitors enter a main building for tours at the former STAR Academy south of Custer in May 2018.

Tenants at the former STAR Academy campus near Custer are scrambling to find new residences and business places after receiving eviction notices from the state of South Dakota, which plans to sell the campus.

Aaron Brownson, who has lived on the campus for 14 years, received an eviction letter Friday from the state Department of Corrections. The notice says the state plans to put the campus up for sale, and he must vacate his home by Oct. 31.

Brownson said he is surprised that state officials do not want to continue collecting rent while a sale is pursued.

“I’m feeling a lot of anger, I guess,” Brownson said Monday. “They just said, ‘You’re out.’ It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The state formerly operated a juvenile detention program on the 173-acre campus but closed the program in 2016 and sold the campus and all its buildings in 2017 on a $2.34 million contract for deed. The purchaser, SLIC-e Holdings, leased out 11 residences on the campus and also leased building space to several businesses. Those businesses include a barbecue restaurant, a digital marketing/media firm and a gallery shared by about a dozen artists who operate individual studios.

Several weeks ago, state government repossessed the campus after SLIC-e Holdings bounced a $116,588 check to the state for an annual payment that was more than four months overdue. The principal player in SLIC-e was Kevin Teasley, who operated a woodworking business on the STAR campus. He has refused to speak on the record with the Journal.

The Journal sought comment about the eviction notices Monday from the office of Gov. Kristi Noem, and a spokeswoman for Noem initially emailed a one-sentence statement: “The governor’s office is evaluating all options.”

The Journal’s subsequent request for elaboration produced a further emailed statement from the spokeswoman, Kristin Wileman: “The impact on tenants is real but each of them were in month to month leases and there are liability issues for the state and its taxpayers when the property reverted back to the state in early September.”

A spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, which is part of Noem’s administration, acknowledged to the Journal that eviction notices were sent Friday and will be effective Oct. 31, but provided no other comment.

Brownson's eviction letter is on Department of Corrections letterhead and is signed by departmental employee Candace Snyder.

“Over the past two weeks the Governor’s office has reviewed all options going forward,” says a portion of the letter. “After carefully reviewing these options, the decision is to close the campus in its entirety and pursue sale of the property.”

Steve Leonardi, one of the artists who has a studio on the campus, said state officials refused to explain why tenants could not stay longer.

“I don’t understand why they want to take us out of the equation, because we’re the only ones actually increasing the value of this place,” Leonardi said, referencing the tenant group as a whole.

Leonardi said he hopes to work with some of the other affected artists to find a new place for an art gallery in Custer.

The campus is about 5 miles south of Custer in a forested setting. Brownson said he began living on the campus while he worked for the STAR Academy, when low-rent housing was made available to employees who agreed to be on-call for emergencies. He remained a resident through the closure and sale of the property and had been paying rent to SLIC-e Holdings. Brownson now works in Rapid City and said the eviction notice has him pondering a move to Wyoming.

Other tenants took to Facebook to express their frustration and seek help finding new places to live.

Tyrae Johnson wrote on Facebook that her grandmother now has only a month to find a new rental house for their family. They need at least three bedrooms and accommodations for pets.

“We wonder why the government wants to ‘help’ people and solve poverty but then turn their backs, casting out people like us (people who can’t afford to live in a rapidly growing economy),” Johnson wrote.

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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