City closer to acquiring shuttered prison for homeless center


Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 8:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 8:28 p.m.

City officials are working with the state on a land swap that could clear the roadblocks to acquiring the shuttered Gainesville Correctional Institution for the long-planned homeless assistance center and shelter.

As Gainesville made progress on that front, Thursday’s City Commission meeting also brought a step backward for the city’s efforts to fund construction and renovation work on the center.

Some $660,308 that the city built up over seven years with federal Community Development Block Grant funding will now have to go toward another program to assist the poor.

That’s because the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the federal CDBG program, set a July 31 deadline for local governments to spend down a significant amount of their CDBG funding.

Governments that do not would see their CDBG funding cut in the next fiscal year, Assistant City Manager Fred Murry told commissioners.

The city’s chosen site for the Grace Marketplace, as the shelter and social services center would be known, is an undeveloped property near an industrial stretch of Northwest 53rd Avenue. But that site has been tied up for years in litigation filed by the owner of a nearby business park and wetlands permitting issues.

Last year, the state declared the closed prison property on Northeast 39th Avenue surplus and offered it for sale to the city. But the Department of Corrections then said it wanted to maintain ownership of parking areas and some buildings, including the medical clinic, for use as probation and parole offices.

That frustrated city commissioners, who went to members of the local legislative delegation with a request to take ownership of the whole prison site.

The property swap with the state, which commissioners voted unanimously to have staff work to finalize, is proposed as a way to accomplish that.

Gainesville would give the Department of Corrections a city-owned building on the 200 block of Northeast First Street that now houses the city police detective division as well as the building’s parking lot.

In exchange, that state agency would allow the city to acquire the administrative, medical and training buildings at the prison site that the state had designs on keeping.

At this point, an appraisal has not yet determined the purchase price of the former state prison. The conditions of the land swap have the city paying the difference if the buildings the DOC is willing to exchange have a higher appraised value than the city’s building. But if the city building has a higher appraised value, the city would donate that difference.

On the funding issue, the vote to move CDBG monies away from the homeless center was approved, with Commissioner Todd Chase in dissent.

Chase voiced frustration that the funding issue had initially been placed on the consent agenda — a bundle of routine items voted on without discussion — until he requested it pulled for discussion. He questioned why staff had not brought the issue to commissioners’ attention earlier and also criticized HUD for telling a local government that it had to spend money set aside for a project to help the poor or lose the funding.

“We are at the goal line at this center, and they’re ripping $660,000 out of our hands because D.C. can’t get it right,” Chase said.

Murry said city staff received notification from HUD last fall of the spending deadline but waited to see if the acquisition of the prison would occur in time to spend down the funding.

The city will instead put the funding toward the renovation and repair of homes owned by low-income residents. The city currently has 50 households on a waiting list for that program and expects the $660,308 could fund repairs for 21 of them.

“I don’t want to minimize the frustration that we have to scramble and reallocate at the last hour, but I also want to highlight the incredible good this money is going to do for 21 families,” Commissioner Lauren Poe said.

Also Thursday, the City Commission delayed a vote on the $1 million purchase of a city block on South Main Street for the future site of the downtown fire station. The City Attorney’s Office requested the delay to modify language in purchase contracts with the block’s two property owners. The vote is not yet rescheduled.

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