On Monday, Gainesville and Hall County officials toured the newly renovated Corrections Corporation of America detention center that’s ready to receive its first group of immigration detainees any day.
Warden Stacey Stone led the group of Hall county commissioners and staff and Gainesville city council members through the old county jail, which will now house about 500 illegal immigrants before they are deported to their home countries.
The CCA detention center will open on the heels of an Aug. 6 announcement of an overhaul of the system of detaining illegal immigrants, that has been widely criticized for being too reliant on private contracts. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Secretary John Morton said detention centers holding ICE detainees soon will see increased federal oversight.
In addition to the old jail building, CCA also built a $1 million building that houses offices for federal immigrations employees. The building also includes a courthouse for hearings.
Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver said he was excited about the jobs the facility will bring to the county, along with the $2 million per year CCA will pay the county to lease the building.
“I think they’ve done an excellent job,” Oliver said. “Some are local people, some are transferring in, but they’re still going to be buying and spending in this community at the same time. It’s part of our economic development.”
Others are not as enthusiastic about the opening of the CCA center.
During the tour, City Councilman George Wangemann asked Stone how long they intended to be there.
“We anticipate being here,” Stone said. “We look forward to being part of the community.”
The city and county for years have disagreed about the terms of the CCA lease.
City Councilman Bob Hamrick said after the tour that though it seems to be a well-run facility, he is still unhappy about its location in the middle of Gainesville.
“It’s a professionally operated facility, ” Hamrick said. “The main point is that it’s a jail and you hate to have that connotation within the downtown area.”
Commissioner Ashley Bell, who represents Gainesville, said he was glad to see city officials at the tour.
“It’s right in the heart of what the future of Gainesville is going to look like,” Bell said. “Hopefully Hall County as a government will be willing to work with them to help the Midtown redevelopment.”
The property lies in Gainesville’s Midtown district, which is slated for a redevelopment project.
Formal discussions between the city and county regarding the detention center property have been sparse.
An open records request by The Times produced little correspondence between the two governments over the years.
In 1980, Gainesville sold the five-acre property to Hall County to allow for a jail near the courthouse. The detention center was constructed in three phases between 1981 and 1993.
The city originally hoped to buy the facility back from Hall County and remove it. City Council members have said the razor-wire-surrounded building will not fit with the future image of the Midtown area.
In 2007, then-mayor Hamrick wrote a letter to Oliver expressing the City Council’s disappointment in the county’s intention to lease the facility as a private prison operation.
“While the city recognizes the financial investment the county has in this site, I would strongly encourage you to also consider the social and economic impacts your decision will have on the city of Gainesville and our overall community,” said Hamrick in the letter, dated July 27, 2007.
In September of the same year, the Hall County Commission and Gainesville City Council met to discuss the detention center property.
According to the meeting minutes, commissioners pointed out that the Hall County Sheriff’s Office would still remain at the Main Street facility, regardless of what happened to detention center next door.
In 2007, the city and the county drafted an agreement — that was never put into effect — that laid out the terms for the city’s purchase of the facility.
The original agreement called for the city to pay $4 million for the jail over two fiscal years and allow the county to lease the jail to a private firm like CCA for seven years. The deal would have generated approximately $18 million for the county and guaranteed Gainesville officials eventual control of the property.
The city and county are at odds over why the agreement was never made official. City officials maintain they were told not to sign the contract while county officials say they never received the signed contract and it expired.
In a December 2007 e-mail, County Attorney Bill Blalock told City Attorney Bubba Palmer and then-city manager Bryan Shuler of an error in the contract.
“I point these changes out to you before your meeting tomorrow so that changes can be made before the Council considers the document,” Blalock said in the e-mail.
Documents show Blalock delivered the final draft of the intergovernmental agreement to Shuler on Jan. 30, 2008.