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Economic tipping point triggers campaign for Appleton state prison

APPLETON, Minn.  -- At a time when most agricultural counties were adding jobs, Swift County saw its unemployment rate pop up to 8.3 percent, the highest in the state.

This was in June, when county officials also learned about a proposal by the Minnesota Department of Corrections asking $141 million in bond funds to add 500 new cells at the correctional facility in Rush City. As they dug into the issue, they learned that the state sees a possible need for 1,200 new prison beds by the early 2020s.

"With a 1,600-bed facility vacant, we kind of raised our hands: Why not the facility in Appleton?'' said Mike Pogge-Weaver, Swift County administrator.

Ever since, a task force from Swift County and the city of Appleton along with Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City and Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, have been working to convince the state: Leasing the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton is the answer to the state's needs.

The county also retained Goff Public of the Twin Cities to assist them in making the case.

The Prairie Correctional Facility has not housed inmates since February 2010, but its owner keeps a full-time staff at the site to maintain it. City and county officials calculate that Corrections Corporation of America has invested millions of dollars to upgrade the facility since its closing.

Last summer, Appleton residents watched as helicopters were put to work to replace roof-top air and heating systems at the prison. Inside its walls, CCA had already completed extensive work to upgrade its security level so that it could be marketed as a facility to hold federal inmates.

It's essentially a state-of-the-art facility, Miller said.

CCA has made it clear it is willing to lease the facility to the state, according to Pogge-Weaver and Roman Fidler, Appleton city clerk. The company currently has a lease arrangement with the state of California.

Leasing the facility would allow the state to staff it with its own employees, which is very important to the Department of Corrections, according to Pogge-Weaver. He said the state wants to make sure that inmates would receive the same programming and services as provided at other state facilities.

They believe the state can better prepare inmates for re-entry into the outside world.

The task force members also believe that state staffing resolves the concerns of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the bargaining unit for state employees. AFSCME wants to maintain union workers in the state corrections system.

The Department of Corrections is listening to Swift County and Appleton, according to Miller and Koenen. A state legislative task force is currently looking at the state's overall prison needs, and the Appleton proposal was among the first items to be discussed. Appleton and Swift County officials have and will continue to make their pitch to its members.

The Department of Corrections could enter into a lease agreement on its own with CCA, and no legislative action would be needed, according to Miller.

But Koenen also pointed out that the Department of Corrections request for $141 million in bonding to build new cells remains on the table. As long as the request is there, it signals that the department and Gov. Mark Dayton want to pursue this option, he said.

Adding to the challenge for making the cause on behalf of the Appleton facility are calls by legislators and organizations in the state for prison reform. Those calling for reforms want the state to reduce its prison population, the two legislators said.

The reality today is that state prison cells are filled and there are perhaps as many as 500 state inmates being held temporarily in county jails, Fidler said. Kandiyohi County and Renville County are among the jails holding state inmates.

Fidler said the Department of Corrections is confident that the county jails are meeting all that is asked of them. He also pointed out, however, that no one is making the case that county jails can provide the long-term services needed by many of these inmates.

Leasing the Appleton facility could allow the state to provide the programming and save it the expense of building new cells. Miller and Koenen both noted that building new prison cells would take up a large share of any state bonding measure. It would also obligate the state to maintain prison cells for another 50 to 100 years that might not be needed if prison reforms are achieved.

If the state leases prison cells, it can always end the relationship when the need for the cells no longer exists, Fidler said.

"A home run for everybody,'' he said of a possible lease agreement.

He said the Department of Corrections has expressed concerns about the ability to staff the Appleton prison.

He and others on the Swift County task force answer that the Appleton facility once had a staff of over 365 employees. Many of those workers commuted from a radius of 30 to 50 miles of Appleton. A 30-minute commute to work is the norm for many in the Twin Cities, and certainly no deterrent for rural residents, Fidler said.

State jobs with benefits and union protections would be highly sought after in a rural economy. "I really don't see any reason that people wouldn't come to Appleton for the jobs,'' he said.

By the numbers

With assistance from the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission, the city of Appleton assembled these numbers a few years ago looking at the economic impact of the prison and its closing:

365 the number of jobs the prison once provided the regional economy

86 the number of lost jobs experienced directly in Appleton.

$13,760,000 The dollar value multiplier of what the loss of jobs meant annually in economic activity for the community.

$500,000 The amount of property taxes the facility pays to the city of Appleton. The taxes would be lost were the state to purchase the facility.

$800,000 The approximate total property taxes paid by the facility including the city, county and school district.

$50,000 The monthly utility bill the facility paid the city of Appleton when it was operating at full capacity.

$300,000 The amount of local government aid the city of Appleton lost annually when the prison closed. Inmates had been counted as part of the city's population in calculating LGA.

90 The number of students the local schools lost when the prison closed.

$586,620 The estimated loss in pupil aid that resulted with the loss of students.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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