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New plans for old jail nearly complete

Hall County to lease facility to private company

POSTED: December 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

The control station in the old Hall County Detention Center. The building has been vacant for more than a year.

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After sitting empty for more than a year, the old Hall County Detention Center is likely to have some new tenants and a new name soon.

Hall County officials are finalizing a lease agreement with private prison operator Corrections Corp. of America that could bring more than 100 new jobs to the area and bring the county about $2 million in annual revenues.

The company will house immigration detainees through an intergovernmental service agreement between Hall County and the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency. On Tuesday, officials with CCA toured the facility on Main Street, which they plan to rename the North Georgia Detention Center.

"We hope to be in a position to sign the contract this month," Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver said.

The future of the 489-bed jail has been in doubt since the Hall County Sheriff’s Office moved its inmates into a new $52 million, sales-tax funded jail on Barber Road in November 2007.

City of Gainesville officials, with an eye toward revitalizing the midtown area that surrounds the old jail, talked of buying the property from the county for $4 million and leasing it back to the county for seven years while it was operated by a private entity. Those talks stalled, mainly because of a more pressing need to spend money on land for a new public safety facility, according to Gainesville Interim City Manager Kip Padgett.

The lease being finalized with CCA is for 20 years, in five-year increments, county attorney Bill Blalock said. Hall County can terminate the lease with two years’ notice, he said.

Though county officials say they’ve heard nothing from the city about the property in recent months, Oliver isn’t counting the city out from future negotiations.

"We’re going to work with the city of Gainesville down the road, depending on what their needs are," Oliver said. "It will be there for them depending on what their needs are and how they want to pursue it."

For at least the next five years, however, the old jail will be back in the inmate business.

Louise Grant, a spokesman for CCA, said she expects the company will be doing construction and renovation work on the jail in January. She could not say how much the company would spend to bring the jail up to the company’s standards, but work is expected to be significant.

Portions of the jail were first built in 1982. When it became clear that the sheriff’s office would be moving its inmates out of the building, only essential maintenance continued.

Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic, who previously has voiced some concerns about the agreement with CCA, said county officials have been "very receptive to the input we’ve provided."

Cronic’s office will literally be an upstairs neighbor with CCA at the Law Enforcement Center that adjoins the jail. And, under the terms of the lease agreement, the sheriff’s office must vacate the building after the first five years.

County officials are counting on voter approval of another sales tax to fund a new sheriff’s headquarters. Should that not come to pass, the terms of the lease might be renegotiated to keep the sheriff from being without a headquarters, according to Blalock.

Cronic also had initial concerns about competing with a private company in Hall County for the boarding of out-of-town inmates. The new jail operated by the sheriff’s office earns millions in county revenue each year by charging other jurisdictions to hold its inmates.

But the sheriff said this week that the type of inmates CCA will house likely will be different than those his office boards for the federal government.

Cronic said he is guardedly optimistic that the arrangement will work out.

"We’ll just have to monitor the situation and hope there is no negative impact," Cronic said. "We can work with anyone, with the provision that we can’t allow anything that would interfere with our ability to serve the community."

Nationwide, CCA houses more than 80,000 inmates in more than 60 facilities, including four in Georgia. The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin houses up to 1,800 immigration detainees and is one of Stewart County’s biggest industries, according to Stewart County Commission Chairman Joe Lee Williams. Stewart County sold CCA the land and the company built the jail, Williams said.

"We’ve always been pleased with them," Williams said. "It’s a good tax base for our county, and it did create a lot of jobs."

Williams said though there was some initial opposition to the facility because of security concerns, there have been no complaints since it opened.

Those who will be housed at the old Hall County jail are expected to be low-risk inmates being held for immigration violations prior to deportation proceedings, county officials said. While Hall County entered into an agreement with ICE, CCA assumes all liability under the terms of the lease.

Grant, the CCA spokeswoman, said the North Georgia Detention Center could create up to 160 new jobs, "and the vast majority would come from the local area."

Grant said the company will have an "aggressive recruitment plan" for everything from detention officers to health service providers and training managers. Because of the nature of the facility, a number of bilingual employees will be needed, she said.

Hall County Administrator Charley Nix said an agreement with CCA could be finalized within the next two weeks and the company, after completing renovations, could move in by March.

"We expect them to be good neighbors," Nix said.

Staff writer Ashley Fielding contributed to this report



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