ANCHORAGE - The city of Whittier has turned to a familiar player as it tries to attract a private prison.
The City Council for the Prince William Sound community southeast of Anchorage voted unanimously last month to partner with Cornell Companies. Cornell has been involved with unsuccessful efforts to build private prisons in Delta Junction and in Kenai.
"I think it had a lot to do with their ability to deal with legislators, and the fact that they're an Alaskan outfit," City Manager Matt Rowley said of the vote.
It also didn't hurt that Cornell's team has gone through the same process twice, he added.
Cornell partnered with VECO and Neeser Construction, and tapped lobbyists Joe Hayes and Kent Dawson, to help win support from lawmakers last year for an 800-bed, medium-security prison to be built near the city of Kenai. Kenai Peninsula Borough voters derailed the project in an October ballot measure, and Whittier eagerly picked it up.
Whittier City Council members say public concern about the safety and ethics of private prisons is less of an issue in this economically foundering town.
"The city of Whittier is looking at this purely for construction and development reasons," Rowley said. "We do not have a dog in the fight as far as the philosophical debate about private vs. public prisons. All we're looking for is to get some sort of development in here. If it was a widget factory instead of a prison, I would welcome it with open arms."
Rowley said he hoped to strike a deal with Cornell, and get council approval, in time for the Jan. 14 start of the state Legislature.
In November, Whittier called on potential prison operators to submit their qualifications to the city. The city evaluated four companies in mid-December and wound up choosing Cornell.
The goal is to ease the state's prison overcrowding problem by building a medium-security prison to house the 800 prisoners currently sent to a private prison in Florence, Ariz.
Frank Prewitt, a former state corrections commissioner and now a Cornell consultant, said the company views Whittier as a good place to build a prison - in some ways better than Kenai.
"It doesn't take any longer to commute there from Anchorage than it does to the Mat-Su," Prewitt said. "It's easier to staff there because you can draw from Anchorage's population base."
Whittier is connected to Southcentral's mainline road system by the Alaska Railroad and a tunnel through the Chugach Mountains.
Prewitt said the city's proposed prison site, on 69.5 acres near an abandoned government tank farm, has natural gas and electric utilities available. In addition, he said, building supplies could be barged to Whittier's deep-water dock.
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