City finds obstacles in acquiring closed prison for possible homeless center


1A CENTERPIECE; 20-30 INCHES; STORY FILED BY 6 P.M
1A CENTERPIECE; 20-30 INCHES; STORY FILED BY 6 P.M

Job losses will occur as the Gainesville Correctional Institution prepares to close the facility, shown Thursday, January 12, 2012 in Gainesville, Fla. ( Erica Brough}/Staff Photographer )

The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 3:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 3:33 p.m.

The city of Gainesville has encountered obstacles in the effort to acquire the shuttered Gainesville Correctional Institution as a possible site for a long-planned homeless assistance center and shelter.

At Thursday’s City Commission meeting, Assistant City Manager Fred Murry said talks with state officials have been complicated by the Department of Corrections’ intention to retain ownership of the closed prison’s administration building, medical clinic building and parking lots. City Manager Russ Blackburn said the city’s plans for the property “would significantly slow down if we are able to acquire the property but do not have parking.”

With the county’s legislative delegation meeting coming up on Tuesday, the City Commission now plans to ask state lawmakers for assistance in the effort to acquire the whole prison property.

At this point, no appraisal has been completed.

Citing budget cuts, the state closed the prison, which is in the 2800 block of Northeast 39th Avenue, declared the property surplus and contacted Gainesville to see if the city had an interest in purchasing the roughly 70-acre site and nearby wooded land, including 110 acres adjacent to Morningside Nature Center that the city is in talks to buy.

On Thursday, frustrated city commissioners questioned why state officials declared the prison site surplus if there were plans to retain ownership of some buildings on site.

“It wasn’t offered to us in good faith,” Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls said.

Commissioners also voiced concerns about what use the Department of Corrections may have for the portion of the site it seeks to retain. Murry said probation offices were one possibility.

He did point to areas of progress in talks, including DOC officials saying they would not object to the city’s efforts to change the zoning and the allowed uses on the site.

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.

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 closed prison includes facilities that could fit in with the plan for the one-stop homeless assistance center — 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.

The city’s current selected site — an undeveloped site near an industrial stretch of Northwest 53rd Avenue — has been tied up for years by wetlands permitting issues and litigation filed by Ropen Nalbandian, the owner of a nearby business park.

The two sides have spent most of the year in talks trying to reach a settlement. It’s expected that a trial already postponed multiple times and now scheduled for late February will now be moved back to June 1 to allow the city to continue negotiations on the potential acquisition of the Gainesville Correctional Institution property.

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