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Missouri officials plan shops, state facilities for historical prison

Wednesday, December 30, 2009 | 7:54 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri officials have proposed mixing shops and state buildings on old prison land where gangsters and killers were once held.

A blueprint was unveiled Wednesday for developing the roughly 140-acre site of the Missouri State Penitentiary on a river bluff just east of the state Capitol. A new federal courthouse already under construction is scheduled to open on the site in 2011. And a state health laboratory and the headquarters for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources are already operating there.

Officials want to use the remaining land for state facilities, businesses and historical preservation of the old prison. The state buildings will sit on more than 70 acres, while the businesses and other private developments will cover about 30 acres. A smaller portion of the land is to be set aside to preserve the prison.

The proposal might also include extending private development onto an island in the Missouri River and building a connection over railroad tracks along the river.

The Missouri State Penitentiary opened in 1836. When it closed in 2004, it was the oldest continuously operated prison west of the Mississippi River.

Boxer Sonny Liston and bank robber Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd were among the inmates once held there. And James Earl Ray had escaped from the prison when he assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

The penitentiary was the site of a riot in 1954 that killed four inmates, injured 50 other prisoners and injured four prison workers.

Thousands of people have toured the prison since it closed, traveling from as far as Florida and California. Several thousand have taken "hard hat" tours, which include walkthroughs of the remaining prison buildings.

Officials said the redevelopment project will preserve the historical aspects of the prison and is a unique opportunity because it frees a large parcel of land in the middle of Jefferson City.

"Very rarely in the history of any community can you see a site ... open up for development right in the downtown center and core of a community," said Cole County Presiding Commissioner Marc Ellinger. "This is a great opportunity to watch that site grow."

It's not known how much the redevelopment will cost or when the entire project would be completed, but state officials said they planned to seek $10 million for demolition work and site improvements. In addition, Jefferson City Mayor John Landwehr said two proposed road improvements are expected to cost around $8 million. The bill for the roads is to be split between Jefferson City and Cole County.

Officials also plan to seek grants and are working to secure federal money for an interchange on a nearby U.S. highway. Lawmakers proposed using federal stimulus money to pay for the interchange, but it was blocked by Gov. Jay Nixon because of a tight state budget.

Missouri Administration Commissioner Kelvin Simmons said planners hope the new federal courthouse will be a catalyst that spurs development at the site. He said no private developers have yet committed to projects there.

Lawmakers in 2001 created a commission to develop plans for the prison site.


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