Local leaders tout prison’s benefits

Published 7:06 pm Sunday, April 1, 2007

The more he learned about federal prisons — how they are built and how they are operated — the more one of the top economic development leaders of the area relaxed and then embraced the idea of a federal prison in Natchez.

“From our research over the last year, it appears these companies are very good corporations,” said Woody Allen, chairman of the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority.

“There is a big difference between building a federal prison and just building a state penitentiary,” he said.

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Two companies are interested in building a federal prison on the outskirts of town, one on airport property and the other on U.S. 84.

“They purchase the land, and they aren’t looking for subsidies,” Allen said. “They pay taxes and pay higher wages to their people. Most everything about them has been positive to me.”

Butch Stewart, a real estate appraiser and owner of Coldwell Banker Stewart Realty, agreed that the federal prison has the potential to improve the economy.

“I haven’t done any study on prisons,” he said. “But I know it would provide jobs and stimulate the economy.”

Stewart said he believes the prison can be built and made to be unobtrusive as part of a town that depends on looking its best for tourism.

“There are ways we can do this without having a negative impact on tourism,” Stewart said.

Allen said he was reluctant about a prison at first especially because of the tourism angle.

“I told them, ‘we’re a tourism town and the site is critical,’” he said.

“I told them their acceptance will be based on the site and the ability to screen it. They totally agreed,” Allen said.

The two companies, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group Inc., are the two largest companies building federal prisons in the United States, he said.

“CCA is a great, huge corporation, and GEO is right behind them,” he said. “They are number one and number two in handling prison contracts.”

Allen said he sees no possibility of ill effects from a prison.

“And it will be in an area somewhat removed from the town,” he said.

“Of course, it will be close to somebody. Whichever way you go, there are some homes in the area.”

Allen said the two companies in question appear to be good corporate citizens and they are accustomed to having opposition when plans for a prison are first announced.

“There will always be some protest. That’s human nature,” he said.

So far, one group of citizens from the Cranfield area is circulating a petition, asking to bring the issue to a public vote. They have said they have roughly half the needed signatures with an April 24 deadline approaching.

Timing is everything, Allen said.

Because of special Hurricane Katrina-related GO Zone legislation that would offer the company financial breaks if they build soon, and because the company would like to have the facility built before the federal contract is awarded, time is tight.

“(CCA) needs to be getting going by around July. If we get thrown into a vote, it will put us way behind the time line.”

Natchez attorney Walter Brown, representing CCA locally, said an election, which would delay the project, might deter the company from locating in Adams County.

“If you support (the prisons), you really don’t want to sign the petition,” Brown said. “The petition affects the timeline. Anyone signing it saying they are not opposed to the prison isn’t thinking this through.”

CCA Vice President for Research, Contracts and Proposals Lucibeth Nave Mayberry agreed.

“Practically, a signature on that petition is a no vote because of the timeline,” Mayberry said.

CCA is also considering Pike and Walthall counties for their prison. They will pick one site based on community acceptance and site surveys.

The company is keeping an eye on how things play out in each county before they decide on a location, CCA Senior Director of Site Acquisition and Development Brad Wiggins said.

“Every location has its advantages,” Wiggins said. “It’s going to come down to overall project cost.”

GEO is looking only at an Adams County site on county property at the airport.

GEO officials have said that they would wait until after they received a federal contract to begin building a facility.

“I think we’re doing the sound logical approach, but they’ve got to do their own thing,” Natchez attorney Johnny Junkin, representing GEO locally, said.

Junkin said because GEO was waiting to build until they received a contract, they did not feel as pressed.

“Once the project at the federal level has been issued, our timeline will kick in,” he said.

As far as the GO Zone incentives were concerned, that was just icing on the cake, Junkin said.

“It’s not a make or break thing for us,” he said. “If we can make it work, that’s great. But we want the project to stand on its own.”

Since GEO is looking at the airport property to locate their facility, the company has reviewed federal guidelines. So far, they haven’t found any problems, Junkin said.

“To the best of our knowledge, nothing we have planned violates FAA regulations,” he said. “Nothing we intend to do as far as height or lights has any problems with the FAA.”

Whether it’s CCA or GEO Allen has a clear vision of what should happen now, he said.

“If we’re going to do it, we need to go forward, make the decision and go,” he said.

“I know the (Mississippi) governor (Haley Barbour) really wanted to send this to us. It was a phone call of excitement about the economic impact,” Allen said. “This is an environmentally clean industry.”