City hopes to open new shelter soon

The city of Gainesville hopes to transform the now-closed Gainesville Correctional Institution on NE 39th Avenue into a one-stop shelter and social services center.

ERICA BROUGH/Special to the Guardian
Published: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 3:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 3:21 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 NE 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 last 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 Bo Diddley 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 NW 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 NE 1st 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 last 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.

Christopher Curry is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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