Members of the Kewaunee County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed it is too early to either embrace or reject the idea of building a new state prison somewhere in the county.
State Rep. David Steffen introduced a proposal to replace the aging Green Bay Correctional Institution and replace it with private construction of a new facility that would be leased back to the state, operated and staffed by Department of Corrections employees.
Wisconsin stands to save over $150 million over the next decade, Steffen said, while giving the village of Allouez a chance to unlock the development potential of 60 acres of property along State Highway 172 on the Fox River, the site of the prison that opened in 1898.
Steffen said he is circulating a bill that would require the Department of Administration to sell the prison and solicit bids for the privately built facility, either still in Brown County or in an adjacent county, with an occupancy date no later than Nov. 1, 2022.
Most of Steffen’s presentation focused on the potential of the existing prison site. He made comparisons to a project in Fairfax County, Virginia, that converted the historic Lorton Prison into a commercial and residential development called Laurel Hill.
He specifically mentioned the Highway 54 corridor between Green Bay and Luxemburg as a good potential site, because the village of Luxemburg is part of the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District and therefore some of the necessary infrastructure already exists.
Kewaunee County Board Chairman Robert Weidner says he attended Steffen’s news conference with Allouez village officials at the invitation of organizers but was not there to endorse the proposal.
“I have not done any investigation as to whether or not we’re a good site, and that’s not going to be up to me,” Weidner told the board at its regular April meeting. “I did express on behalf of the County Board that we were willing to explore the issues and the opportunities and anything else that we should know about if we brought such a large project into the county. I didn’t feel I should say whether we want it or don’t want it.”
He said supporters of Steffen’s proposal prefer it be built along a state highway corridor.
“I think the state is going to show its preference as to where they want it,” Weidner said.
The GBCI currently houses about 1,100 inmates and has 345 employees, he said.
The advantage of a privately owned facility is that it would be subject to property taxes. State-owned land and buildings are tax exempt.
Written into the plan is a designated area for county prisoners. Both Brown and Kewaunee counties have had preliminary studies of the need for new jail facilities.
Supervisor Donna Thomas pressed Weidner to say whether he had a specific site in mind, but he said all he really concluded is that the county’s villages and cities probably don’t have available land but there is a lot of open land that is now used for agriculture.
“It’s open for any municipal government to start expressing their thoughts on it,” Weidner said.
Supervisor John Mastilir said several lawmakers appear to be making noises about locating a facility in western Kewaunee or eastern Brown county, noting that Kewaunee County is still coping with the loss of revenues from the 2013 closing of the Kewaunee Power Station.
“That might be something that, if this county’s at all considering it, that we need to push that political button,” Mastilir said.
Supervisor Lee Luft warned that he lived in Chippewa County when the privately owned Stanley prison was built, but the company went under and the state ended up buying it – eliminating the annual property tax payments at the same time.
“I think it’s a good approach to, let’s keep a neutral stance until we get the answers to a lot of those questions,” Luft said, although he said Steffen’s proposal is different from the Stanley situation, where the company built a prison before having a firm commitment from the state or any municipalities to house inmates there.