By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
A contingent of five local and area officials carried high hopes but a low degree of certainty into a January 3 meeting with Gov. Kay Ivey’s Chief of Staff Jo Bonner and other senior staff members on the possibility that one of the state’s three proposed “super prisons” would be located just outside Atmore.
They left the meeting as uncertain as they had arrived, their hopes no higher than when they arrived.
Attending the meeting were Mayor Jim Staff, Tucson Roberts (the city’s retail and industrial recruiter), District 5 County Commissioner Karean Reynolds, Jim Johnson (chairman of Atmore-Escambia / Monroe County Industrial Development Authority) and Jess Nicholas (acting director of Coastal Gateway Economic Development Alliance).
“It’s one of those things that is kind of up in the air,” Staff. said “I left there frustrated. They didn’t say they would (push for the prison being here); they didn’t say they wouldn’t. Hopefully, something is going to come out of it.”
Nicholas said the local group expressed concern over the loss of the two state prisons currently located just outside town, along Alabama 21.
“We presented concerns of Atmore and Escambia County — and other counties in the region as well — in regard to the possible loss of the Fountain and Holman prisons,” he said. “The bid process currently out there seems to be pushing potential builders to only submit lands that are currently privately held. With close to 8,000 acres in Atmore already held by the state, we believe it is more prudent for taxpayers if those lands are used to build the new prison, as land could theoretically be acquired for appraised value, or close to it, as well as offering excellent speed-to-market.”
Nicholas pointed out that the anticipated increase in jobs and the preservation of existing jobs, if the new prison is built here, makes the prospects of trying to land the “super prison” even more important.
“Our understanding is that Fountain and Holman are both likely — not guaranteed, but likely — to close as part of this process,” he said. “So it’s not just about the additional jobs that would be coming with a mega-prison (estimated between 300 to 700 additional jobs over the number currently employed at the two local prisons), it’s also about saving the 200 to 300 jobs that currently exist at the two facilities.”
Nicholas said Alabama Department of Corrections officials must change their way of thinking before serious consideration is given to locating the new facility here.
“I believe the officials we met with were sympathetic to our concerns, and they did listen carefully to the scenarios we presented,” he said. “The key is what the next steps look like and whether there is a way to get the DOC to consider state-owned lands in proposals, as the current RFP (Request for Proposal) seems to eliminate them from consideration.”
He added that he expects an update by the end of February.