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Rolling the dice

Could hospital relocation be factor in new prison site selection?

News Staff Writer

Local officials aren’t sure that the proposed relocation of Atmore Community Hospital to a point near Interstate 65 will make a difference in whether one of the state’s three new “super prisons” will be located here. At the same time, they’re not sure it won’t.
The matter was discussed at length during a two-hours-plus Monday, July 15, meeting that included Mayor Jim Staff, City Councilmen Webb Nall, Chris Walker and Jerome Webster, County Commissioner Brandon Smith, local businessman Jim Johnson and Coastal Gateway Economic Development Alliance’s Jess Nicholas.
One of the new prisons will be located in northern Alabama, one in the state’s central region, and one in the southern portion. Each will be privately built and privately owned and will be leased to the state.
Members of the Atmore-Escambia / Monroe County Industrial Development Authority met recently with State Senator Greg Albritton, State Rep. Alan Baker and one of two contractors who are bidding on construction of at least one of the new correctional facilities. The developers will ultimately decide in or near which communities the facilities will be built.
“These folks came in, told us the hospital was of significant importance,” said Johnson, who serves as chair of AEMCIDA, which was formed three years ago. “They did not get into specific site selection, but pretty much said ‘you guys need get off the ground, pick spot and start construction so we can put it in bid packet.’ We need to have a definitive answer on whether we’re going to be under construction on this date, at this location, so they can put it in their bid package.”
Although Johnson and Nicholas were quick to point out that the new hospital’s location would likely improve the chances that one of the prisons would be built here, both agreed that leaving it where it is now or building it elsewhere wouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
“If the healthcare authority goes back and says they’re going to keep (ACH) there (in its present location) forever, is that going to kill this prison bid?” Nicholas asked “I would answer with a definitive ‘no’ that it wouldn’t kill it. Would a new hospital, configured differently, at that location (in Rivercane, near I-65) help that bid? I can’t answer that.”
The northern and southern prisons will have 3,400 inmate beds, while the one in Central Alabama will include the Alabama Department of Corrections’ mental health facility and will have 3,800 beds.
City Councilman Webb Nall said, “It seems like they (the potential builders) think this would be the most logical site,” to which Johnson cautiously agreed.
“They do, and the state does,” he said. “The gist of it is, I want all you guys on the city council to know how important it is that we put all our feathers in our cap. One of the biggest questions for (the potential bidder) was, is your trauma facility going to be close by and will it have a Sally port for prisoners or not?”
Johnson said the financial setback that would be suffered by West Escambia Utilities, if the prison was built elsewhere, could be devastating to the local utility. That factor might also figure into building the new prison here.
“It would hurt West Escambia, for sure,” he said. “The prison is one of their biggest customers. I think that will make a difference in the bid selection, that it would help our chances.”
Staff said the time has come to gamble on keeping the prison presence local.
“It is a gamble,” he said. “But we’ve got to roll our dice. If we don’t roll the dice … We’ve got to try. We can’t just sit back and say it’s going to happen; it ain’t, if you don’t push it.”
Nicholas said the prison issue and the hospital relocation issue coming to the forefront at the same time was an unfortunate coincidence, “really about bad timing.”
Projections are that 200 new jobs would be created by construction of the “super prison.”
After Nicholas pointed that there was no simple answer to the dilemma, Staff reiterated that it was worth the gamble.
“We can speculate all we want,” he said. “But these folks (consulting firms hired by local healthcare officials) were paid for the thing, and they ought to know. It’s one of those things where we’re rolling the dice again. This is not one of those things where, if you do this, this might happen. They’re saying that if we don’t move it (the hospital), it’s going to close. Pure and simple, that’s what they said. And we can’t let our hospital close.”
Hardly any opposing views were expressed during the meeting, although Webster and Walker both voiced some concerns. A pre-bid meeting is scheduled for August 7, with all 14 potential bidders expected to attend. Bids are expected to be let in January.