Ron Cunningham: A place where hope went to die


Published: Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 11:00 p.m.

Listen, I've been to two goat ropings and a rodeo, so I've pretty much seen it all.

But I saw something extraordinary a week ago Saturday.

I saw people with smiles on their faces walking around and looking for hope. In a place where hope used to go to die.

I had cycled out to the old Gainesville Correctional Institution, near the airport, for the city-sponsored open house. And it was pretty much what you would expect of a mothballed correctional facility.

Enough razor wire to secure downtown Gainesville against a zombie invasion. Fading paint warnings of "No inmates beyond this point." Sad institutional-drab walls and sagging roofs showing every bit of their 22 years. Barred windows and a pock-marked bulletin board in the old drug rehab center with a surprisingly quirky "Trick or treatment" stenciled across the top.

So why would all of that draw a crowd?

Why would politicians and civic leaders and educators and social workers and community activists and all manner of others give up a spring-like Saturday morning in January to walk the grounds of an old prison?

Because behind that grim veneer of institutional hopelessness it is easy to imagine what might be after the community rolls up its sleeves and gets to work: A haven for redemption and reinvention. A place of infinite possibilities.

Take away the razor wire and the GCI complex, backed up against a 1,200-acre state forest, almost begins to look like a college campus that has seen better days. Yet a campus whose best days may yet be ahead, if the communal will exists to make it so.

The city of Gainesville is in negotiations with the DOC to acquire the complex of 14 buildings and 70-plus acres of land. But the department's desire to maintain possession of the parking lot and one building has complicated the deal.

Initially the discussion has mostly been about using the complex to host a long-sought one-stop homeless service center and maintaining the open land for conservation purposes.

But you don't have to spend much time out there to see the potential for much more going on.

A homeless center, yes. But there is also room for community gardens. And clinics. And family intervention services. And a library. Virtually every non-profit in Gainesville that is in the human potential business might have a presence there.

With every water body in Alachua County polluted to one degree or another, the creeks and wetlands could become living laboratories for eco-restoration. There is even a fishing pond on the property.

And surely there is room for UF and Santa Fe College to collaborate on an east Gainesville center for higher learning.

Is there a role for the arts and culture? Of course.

And what else? What indeed.

"We call ourselves a community of innovation," said Randy Wells, the city commissioner who has taken onto himself the lead roll in envisioning what might be at the monument to human failure formerly known as GCI. "Well we have the opportunity here to show how innovative we can be."

But here's the thing. Even if the land and buildings are acquired for next to nothing, the job of rebuilding and repurposing is going to be monumental and expensive; the work of years. It is certainly beyond the capacity of city government to manage alone, even with the county's help.

And it may not happen at all without a community-wide collaboration on the scale that I'm not sure we've ever witnessed in this town.

"We won't be able to make this work without a large number of partners," Mayor Craig Lowe said. "A broad coalition of participants."

We're talking churches and civic clubs, neighborhood associations and businesses, philanthropists and local charities and individuals who just want to help make their community a better place; all need to come aboard.

This is exciting stuff. But Gainesville has to be all-in if we're going to turn a place where hope used to go to die into a haven for hope reborn.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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