Residents Have Varied Visions for Site of Closed Windsor Prison

  • The Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt., Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Correspondent
Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Windsor — If the town wants lawmakers and state officials to consider its ideas for use of the former prison off County Road, it needs to act quickly and be ready to present a detailed proposal to the Legislature early next year.

That was the message at Tuesday night’s forum, attended by about 20 residents and hosted by the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services and commissioners of the state departments of Corrections and Buildings and General Services. Also on the panel were Windsor County’s three state senators and three area state representatives.

“If the town wants to have a proposal for the state, please put it together,” said Al Gobeille, secretary of the Agency of Human Services. “It is beneficial to know your thoughts.”

Officials assured residents several times that determining the prison’s future will be a transparent process and the town will not be ignored.

“Recommendations from the community will be listened to,” said Chris Cole, commissioner of Buildings and General Services, which oversees state-owned property.

But Cole also said there has to be money behind any proposal from the town.

“It must have a funding component,” Cole said. “How are you going to build what you want to build?”

It would be at least two years before any work is done on the property because funding would be part of the next two-year capital budget, which begins in July 2019, but a decision about how the property will be used could be made by the end of this legislative session, Cole said.

As the 90-minute forum concluded, Town Manager Tom Marsh said it was “disconcerting” to first hear it will take two years before anything is done with the property and then be told that lawmakers could make a decision by May, which he thought was too soon.

Marsh told residents, several of whom offered some ideas for the property’s use, that town officials would work to develop a cohesive approach to developing ideas with the help of Distinctly Windsor, an economic development group, the regional planning commission and Springfield Regional Development Corporation. The prison closed on Oct. 31.

“Let’s develop a process for legitimate ideas, vet those ideas and put resources together to see how viable they are,” Marsh said.

State Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, and Cole both said a unified recommendation would have the best chance of success.

“I would encourage a planning process to come up with a proposal Windsor can get behind,” Clarkson said, suggesting something that ties into the nearby hospital might be worth considering. “A unified plan will be helpful; competing plans will be a challenge.”

Educational facilities were suggested by a few residents.

“One idea no one objects to is a University of Vermont agricultural school,” said resident John MacGovern, who said he has informally polled residents in town. “It is the kind of idea that does have strong local support.”

Resident John Mayo thought the roughly 100 acres could be leased or sold to a trade school for plumbing, carpentry and electrical, with the added benefit of having students do maintenance on the buildings, some of which are in need of repair.

Resident Bernie Shaban urged the state to consider giving the land to house homeless vets, and resident Susan Foster said she would like to see the state derive an “economic benefit” through agriculture. About 700 acres around the prison was transferred to Vermont Fish and Wildlife last year.

Residents’ ideas were in contrast to a report by the Agency of Human Services that could recommend the prison property for a mental health facility.

The secretary said his agency will complete that report by mid-January.

Gobeille gave no indication what the report would say about the Windsor property, or if he would recommend it be used by his agency.

Both Gobeille and Cole said the state’s mental health facilities are “in crisis” and are failing to meet the needs of Vermont’s mental health population.

Psychiatric facilities for juveniles or the elderly were just two of the areas where the state needs to improve, they said, and many of the facilities are located within old buildings that have deferred maintenance.

Marsh said the most recent town survey includes a question on the future of the prison property, and he urged residents to make their feelings known.

Once the report is released, it will be presented at legislative hearings in late January and February, said state Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions.

A report by the Department of Corrections on using the property to help inmates who are ready for release to re-enter society was not discussed at the meeting.

That report was required as part of the bill approved last session to close the prison, mainly because it was the state’s most costly prison.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.