**TOWN HALL MEETING HAS BEEN MOVED TO NEW OUACHITA CENTER ON RMCC CAMPUS**
BY LEANN DILBECK –
The Arkansas Board of Corrections and the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) are requesting any interested communities to submit “Expressions of Interest” to donate property for the location of an estimated $100 million correctional facility to initially house 1,000 maximum-security inmates. The new state prison would generate 250 new jobs that average $12.75 an hour plus benefits. The facility will have an annual operating budget of approximately $19 million. ADC plans to construct the facility in a manner that it can be expandable to approximately 2,000 beds, at which time it will employ 500 with an annual operating budget of approximately $38 million.
State Representative Nate Bell will be hosting a town hall meeting Friday, August 15 in the NEW OUACHITA CENTER ON RMCC CAMPUS beginning at 6:30 p.m. to hear from those in District 20 regarding their interest in pursuing this project. “When you have the possibility of bringing new jobs in, it deserves being researched. Part of my job is to bring resources into the community. I just want to provide a forum where we can provide factual information and not make decisions based on rumor or emotion,” said Bell.
Among the requirements outlined by ADC included it being a site of at least 400-acres, be roughly square, and generally flat. A paved public roadway bordering one-side of the site is preferred and it should be in close proximity to community and major medical resources, a university/college/community college, and to adequate utilities (gas, electricity, water, and sewer). It must also be in an adequate populace that can provide qualified individuals to fill the jobs.
Also attending the town hall meeting will be ADC Public Information Officer Shea Wilson. Wilson told The Pulse, “It’s still very early. There are no front runners at this point,” as she explained the process in which a community will be selected. She added that the ADC wants to be in a community where they are “wanted.” Wilson pointed out that the jobs generated will not just be “security” positions but will also include medical, educational, clerical, etc.
Local public officials are essentially undecided on the issue and will also be attending the town hall, eager to receive more factual information and to hear feedback from their constituents.
Polk County Sheriff Mike Godfrey wants residents to understand that the possibility of this state prison and the construction of a new county jail facility are two completely separate issues. While he is extremely proud to have the state considering adding a state prison facility to help alleviate the county jail overcrowding being experienced all across Arkansas, he stressed there will still be a need for a new county jail facility. “Even if the state decided to build a state prison facility here, we would not be able to house county inmates there. If you divide up the 1000 beds among all 75 counties holding inmates waiting on a state prison bed, it doesn’t take long to fill up.”
Godfrey said he is in the process of researching other communities and how a prison could impact crime rate, either positively or negatively. He said the proposed prison to be built is “maximum” and would have incredibly tight security in which inmates are locked up 23 hours a day with only 1 hour of sunshine and then it is under extremely heavy guard; therefore, escapees would not be a concern.
Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison explained that anytime you have something that could generate hundreds of jobs, it deserves further consideration. “We have to look into it. We would be doing a disservice to our community if we didn’t.” Ellison said his biggest concern would be regarding location as he discussed the challenges of finding a location that supports the utilities that would be required but also did not want it to adversely affect property values. Ellison added, the most ideal situation would be to border timberland or the U.S. Forest Service.
One of the state’s most recently constructed prisons is the Ouachita River unit, located 2.3 miles south of downtown Malvern, off Highway 67 South.
Hot Springs County Judge Bill Scrimshire said without hesitation that the ADC are good neighbors and partners to have. Scrimshire actually served as the District 26 State Representative and voted to support the construction of the facility in his district in 2003. He said the biggest concern of residents prior to its construction was security, “But nothing has ever happened that has threatened the security of our people here.”
He said that when the prison was first constructed there was a hike in rental rates but that it soon leveled out and he was not aware of any negative impact on property values. He did say that Malvern did not experience any great surge in its economy outside of the additional employment opportunities provided. He also said while he did not have any statistical numbers to back it up, it was his opinion that the crime rate was not affected.
Scrimshire did say that the inmate population is counted in the county’s census and, therefore, could be a positive for funding because of additional federal, state, and road turn-back monies.
Mena Mayor George McKee said that there are certainly not 400 acres that he is aware of within the city limits but he will be attending the town hall meeting to learn more and believes strongly that it should be determined by the residents and business owners of the area as to whether this is pursued.
Both McKee and Gar Eisele, ARCO Chair, expressed concerns on the impact a prison could have on the local tourism industry. “A lot of effort and resources have gone into branding Mena as a tourism destination. We don’t want to stand in the way of anything that can bring jobs but we definitely need to do our research to determine long-term effects and not rush into anything,” said Eisele.
Expressions of Interest from communities will be accepted by the ADC through October 24.