City to consider GCI site as possible homeless center


Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 6:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 6:07 p.m.

With the support of several homeless advocates, the City Commission will pursue the purchase of the shuttered Gainesville Correctional Institution as a possible site for the long-discussed homeless service center and shelter.

The state has declared the prison property on the 2800 block of Northeast 39th Avenue surplus and given city government the option to buy it.

While commissioners unanimously decided the city should move ahead with appraisals of the property’s value and negotiations with state government, nothing was finalized Thursday. At this point, the city does not have a purchase price or a cost for renovation of the facility.

The state closed the facility in April because of budget cuts and declared the property as surplus. That included not just the prison buildings but also the 1,200 acres of adjacent woods.

State agencies have the first shot at acquiring properties that other departments have declared surplus and the Florida Forestry Service and Florida National Guard are interested in the undeveloped land, according to the city.

When there’s talk of putting a homeless center somewhere, there’s also the possibility of running into opposition, Commissioner Lauren Poe noted.

“We are early in this process,” Poe said. “Potential opposition does not surface until later in the process ... I am confident there will be opposition. There always is for any homeless center sited anywhere.”

That was the case for the city’s current selected location for the services center and shelter — an almost 10-acre site on a dead-end road that extends off of an industrial stretch of Northwest 53rd Avenue.

Starting in 2010, Ropen Nalbandian, the owner of a business park along Northwest 53rd, has filed several legal challenges against the city’s decision to locate the center there. A proposed settlement offer from Nalbandian would require the city not build the center there or within a one-mile radius of his property on Northwest 53rd.

Wetlands permitting issues with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have also delayed construction.

City officials said Thursday that they would continue to work toward the construction of the center on the property off Northwest 53rd while looking into the GCI site as an alternative location.

Grace Marketplace One Stop Center, as the homeless shelter and services center is known, was the main goal of a 10-year plan that city and county officials adopted some seven years ago to reduce homelessness. One nonprofit agency would be in charge of operations while several other social service agencies would have a presence there.

Plans for the facility include a shelter, a soup kitchen, a possible campsite and a social service agency presence that would provide counseling, medical care and job placement.

The prison includes facilities that could fit in with the plan — such as dormitories, a kitchen and cafeteria, an infirmary, a library, a chapel, an outdoor exercise area and a former drug treatment center that could serve as a counseling center or office or classroom space.

Assistant City Manager Fred Murry identified one complication Thursday. The Department of Corrections, he said, had expressed an interest in retaining ownership of the infirmary building.

Former City Commissioner Jack Donovan, the executive director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, and Bob and Arupa Freeman with The Home Van, a mobile soup kitchen and assistance center, supported the City Commission’s decision to pursue the closed prison.

“I want to thank you all for your openness to this plan,” Arupa Freeman told commissioners.

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