Cabinet OKs sale of former prison to city for homeless center

The public participates in tours of the closed Gainesville Correctional Institution property on Saturday, January 12, 2013. The city is in negotiations to purchase the closed prison, 2845 NE 39th Ave., from the state for use as a homeless shelter and social services center.

Elizabeth Hamilton
Published: Tuesday, November 19, 2013 at 11:29 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 19, 2013 at 11:31 a.m.

It has been a long time coming.

Eight years after the city and county first unveiled a 10-year plan to end homelessness, Gainesville has secured a site for the homeless shelter and assistance center that is the linchpin of the effort.

In Tallahassee on Tuesday, the Florida Cabinet approved the sale of the closed Gainesville Correctional Institution on Northeast 39th Avenue to the city for about $1.4 million — a figure that includes adjacent conservation lands.

“We've spent eight years in our community seeking a location for this center,” City Commissioner Randy Wells told Cabinet members.

Proposals from nonprofit organizations interested in operating the center also were due to be submitted to the city by Tuesday afternoon.

At Tuesday's meeting in Tallahassee, Wells said the city hoped to have a signed agreement in place with the organization selected to oversee operations by December.

That organization, he said, would be responsible for bringing more service providers and additional funding to operate the facility.

The city previously had an option to purchase a property off Northwest 53rd Avenue and planned to locate the center there.

But that site was tied up for years in legal challenges filed by a nearby business park owner, Ropen Nalbandian, and by wetlands permitting issues.

The city turned its attention to the former GCI site after the state closed the prison in spring 2012 and declared the site surplus.

The city's plans for the site include a shelter and soup kitchen but also involve job training and other services intended to help those who want to pull themselves out of homelessness.

The site has existing buildings and facilities that fit the plan, including 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 classroom space.

Even after the state declared the site surplus, the Department of Corrections had sought to retain some buildings on site for probation offices.

After city officials objected, the DOC expressed interest in a land swap that had the state probation office going in a vacant former law office the city owns directly north of City Hall.

That plan ended in August when residents of the nearby Historic Duck Pond Neighborhood turned out to oppose the planned probation office, and the city Plan Board voted down an application for it.

On Tuesday, Assistant City Manager Fred Murry thanked the area's representatives in the Florida Legislature and staff at the DOC and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the surplus lands program, for working with the city to see through the deal.

The city's nearly $1.4 million purchase from the state involves about 35 acres of the prison site, including the buildings, and 126 acres of woodlands that will be an addition to the city's Morningside Nature Center.

The city already had money set aside for the purchase of a site for the center. The city and county each have pledged $150,000 — for a total of $300,000 — for the first year of operations.

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