City hopes to use closed prison as soon as possible


FILE - The Gainesville Correctional Institution is shown Thursday, January 12, 2012 in Gainesville.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 5:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 5:30 p.m.

It has been almost eight years since area officials released a 10-year plan to end homelessness — and the focal point of their strategy, a one-stop shelter and social services center, is still not a reality.

The city is pursuing the purchase of the shuttered Gainesville Correctional Institution property on Northeast 39th Avenue for the center but now expects talks with the state to stretch into early 2014 before a deal is final.

Commissioners unanimously decided Thursday to ask the state for permission to use the property before the purchase is final in order to get the long-stalled project moving.

Commissioner Randy Wells said the homeless people sleeping each night around the downtown plaza illustrate the need to get the center up and running as soon as possible.

"We have an obligation to do something now," Wells said.

After a former site eyed near Northwest 53rd Avenue ran into years of litigation and wetlands permitting issues, the city turned its attention in October 2012 to the closed prison property, which the state had declared surplus.

A proposal for a two-phase acquisition included paying $700,000 for 28 acres and a land swap with the state for the remainder, which included the former medical clinic and administrative building.

In exchange, the state was to take ownership of a former law office north of City Hall on Northeast First Street. That deal fell through on Aug. 22, when the city Plan Board voted down an application for the state to use the building near City Hall as a probation office.

Dozens of residents of the Historic Duck Pond Neighborhood turned out to oppose the plan to move the probation office there from its current location a few blocks to the south in downtown.

City Manager Russ Blackburn said the city had the legal right to appeal that Plan Board decision to a hearing officer, but staff recommended against it because there was "a lot of consternation in the neighborhood about the use."

Commissioners also voted Thursday to attempt to negotiate the purchase of the remainder of the shuttered prison from the state — the buildings that were to be part of the land swap — with an expected cost of $200,000.

If the city gets state permission to use the closed prison before the purchase is final, it remains to be seen how much money the city will put toward renovations and when the homeless center and shelter will be up and running.

"Please make something happen now," homeless advocate Ellen Allen told commissioners.

The city is looking for nonprofit agencies to run the center and offer services there.

Koppers

The removal and replacement of a foot of dioxin-contaminated soils from homes west of the Koppers Superfund site is slated to begin in early 2014, and city government wants to ramp up involvement.

Commissioners voted unanimously to convert a part-time staff liaison position on Koppers to full time, with the cost impact not yet determined. The move is intended to organize a community effort to "contribute toward bringing about a superior off-site surface soils remediation process in the Stephen Foster Neighborhood."

The vote was reaffirmation of a commission action from March 2012.

After a presentation from a representative of Beazer East Inc., the company legally responsible for the cleanup of the contaminated former wood treatment plant and affected off-site soils, some commissioners and residents voiced continued opposition to the fact that the agreement between the company and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not include purchasing homes to relocate residents.

"I want compensation and relocation because I have suffered enough," Stephen Foster resident Alice Alonso said.

When it came to relocation of residents, Commissioner Susan Bottcher said that "just because it's not required doesn't mean it's not a good idea."

Commissioner Lauren Poe said the city for years pushed for the relocation of residents and for contaminated soils to be removed from the Koppers property instead of stored in an on-site containment area, and neither of those things became part of the cleanup, which a federal judge approved in July.

"It will continue to be an exercise in frustration if we keep asking for things we know we're not going to get … as depressing as it is, that's where we're at," Poe said.

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