Ketchikan next in line for prison pitch

Some residents ready to rally support for new private facility

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2001

With a private prison proposal soundly defeated by Kenai Peninsula Borough voters, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough may be poised to seek the facility.

"I think the majority of persons down here would push very hard to attract the facility," said Ketchikan Borough Mayor Jack Shay.

Shay said a prison could help the local economy. He said a conversation with private prison operator Cornell Companies may be the next step.

Cornell spokesman Paul Doucette said it might be a race to see who placed the phone call first, him or Shay.

Ketchikan has been looking for economic opportunities since Ketchikan Pulp Corp. shut down its Ward Cove mill in 1997. Gateway Forest Products, a company run by former pulp company staff, took over KPC's sawmill and opened a veneer plant. But the sawmill closed this year and the veneer operation ran into financial problems.

Roger Stone, co-owner of Alliance Realty in Ketchikan, asked local officials a year ago to consider bringing a prison to town, but efforts were put on hold when Kenai pursued the project, he said. With construction of an electric intertie to Wrangell and Petersburg scheduled to start next year, a prison would be a good fit for the community and provide nonresource jobs, he said.

"It would have been a huge shot in the arm for Kenai, but in Ketchikan it's very frankly a survival issue," he said. "The dynamics are completely different here than they are up there."

Borough land on Gravina Island, across Tongass Narrows from Ketchikan, would be a good place to put the prison, he said. And Stone expects the vote in Ketchikan would fall about 70 percent in favor with 15 percent against, a flip from the Kenai results, he said.

Ketchikan's Overall Economic Development Program Committee has a $5,000 grant from Wal-Mart to study a prison. Chairman Joe Johnston said the group plans to ask Ketchikan's Borough Assembly to start evaluating the possibility of bringing a prison in town.

"Ketchikan's economy has become way too seasonal. We need to find year-round, wage-paying jobs for our people. We can't continue to fluctuate six months on, six months off," he said.

Johnston said officials also need to get in touch with the public and see what the reaction is.

"We need to poll the community," he said.

The economic value of a private prison was debated by the two sides of the ballot measure on the Kenai Peninsula. The Legislature committed up to $26 million a year for 20 years to lodge inmates at the Kenai prison. The state now pays nearly $19 million a year to house up to 800 prisoners at a private prison in Arizona.

Kenai Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, who supported exploring the prison's feasibility, said he doesn't expect Kenai to try again.

"The prison's off the table," Bagley said. "As far as I'm concerned, the people voted on it, and that's the end of it."

Kenai's prison try was the second such attempt in recent years. Delta Junction entered into a contract with Allvest in early 1999 to build a private prison on Fort Greely. Allvest was later bought by Cornell.

Juneau Empire reporter Joanna Markell and Peninsula Clarion reporter McKibben Jackinsky contributed to this article.

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