Tourists could bunk at old prison site

Plans for the state penitentiary include three hotels and
a conference center.
Wednesday, October 8, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:33 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri State Penitentiary, once home to the likes of gangster Pretty Boy Floyd and boxer Sonny Liston and one of the country’s longest-running gas chamber units, may be the state’s next tourist trap.

Three 250-room hotels are just a few of the amenities being proposed in the master plan for the 167-year-old complex, which will close in 2005.

A state-appointed redevelopment commission has been reviewing design and financing options for the 142-acre site. Of particular concern is preserving the complex’s oldest structures, including inmate housing and dining facilities operated during important periods of the prison’s history.

The commission, which receives staff support from the state’s Office of Administration, also serves as a “redevelopment authority,” a body that may legally acquire property after the state fully abandons the site. The commission also has the power to hire staff, borrow and receive money, and sell and lease property.

As it stands, the commission’s master plan divides the complex into five campuses, with the centerpiece being the historic-preservation center. Here, the plan proposes gutting selected residential units and prison facilities to house museums and exhibits, a conference center, hotels and other attractions.

Even the state’s original gas chamber unit, which operated from 1938 to 1989, has a place in the plan.

Charles Brzuchalski, who oversees the project for the Office of Administration, said redevelopment of the complex could run near $600 million and added that the work would likely be spread out over a period of 15 to 20 years.

Other options for the complex include a public-service campus — featuring new state office buildings — as well as entertainment, commercial office and natural resource campuses.

Land adjacent to the five campuses is already being developed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources for a new office building and a health lab.

For now, the old prison complex has the benefit of nostalgia on its side, as well as support from local residents, to keep its record intact. But like most expansion projects of this magnitude, costs might limit how much can be achieved.

Three years ago, at statewide public meetings with architects, engineers and planners about the project, independent critics commissioned by the state’s Design and Construction Division warned that the public sector could not be relied on entirely for the money to improve the site. The group recommended that a variety of public and private uses for the land should be pursued.

Although the redevelopment commission was created to broker these kinds of partnerships, Brzuchalski said all collaborative funding options have not been explored. As it stands, the master plan still represents what could be. And there seems to be little information on how much the state will be asked to contribute to the project in the future.

“Given the state’s funding situation, it will be very, very, very minimal,” he said.

Brzuchalski said a combination of state and federal incentives and tax breaks could be used to attract developers and offset some of the costs, but it was too early to offer exact projections. He also said that not all of the proposed projects in the master plan would be implemented.

“So far, about two dozen developers have expressed interest — from hospitality to entrepreneurial to specific use developers,” he said.

Brzuchalski said that state officials and commission members are relying on the site’s anticipated registration with the National Park Service to support historic preservation activities, although the process may take up to a year to complete. Registered sites often receive tax credits and grants.

“Right now, we’re trying to prioritize structures and be attentive of what’s being put on there,” he said.

Corrections officials decided to close the penitentiary because of safety and management problems caused by deteriorating infrastructure. It will be replaced by the new Jefferson City Correctional Center, which will open Aug. 1, 2004, in eastern Cole County.

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