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Closed Appleton prison could receive federal contract

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By Carolyn Lange

West Central Tribune

APPLETON - Optimism is high that Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton will reopen its doors to house federal inmates, with the potential of hiring back the 400 employees who lost their jobs when the facility closed Feb. 2.

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The Corrections Corporation of America, which owns the 1,675-bed facility, is submitting a proposal to house federal medium-security prisoners at the site.

The four-year guaranteed contract could bring in 1,200 to 1,400 federal inmates to Appleton while still allowing contracts with other states, like Minnesota, to house prisoners there.

"We're extremely excited. The community is optimistic again about the potential contract and the reopening of the prison," said City Coordinator Bob Thompson who was able to secure 125 letters of support from business and government leaders within 24 hours to include in CCA's proposal, which is due Monday to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington D.C.

"A lot of people are extremely excited and hopeful," Thompson said.

And with good reason.

Since the prison closed, the city has taken a huge financial hit in tax revenues. Appleton businesses have also lost a big customer base, creating a "tremendous economic depression" in the community that has been "dramatic beyond words," Thompson said.

About 50 percent of the jobs were held by Appleton residents and local businesses supplied goods and services to the prison.

As part of a negotiated settlement after the prison closed, the valuation of the facility was decreased by $17 million. CCA will be paying $500,000 less in property taxes next year that will be shifted to other taxpayers, County Auditor Byron Giese said.

The prison's closure has also lowered revenues for public utilities and other government services. For the first time, Swift County's solid waste fund is running at a $75,000 deficit because the prison's garbage and recyclable materials are no longer flowing through the system.

If the prison is reopened, Giese said the city, school district and county could each see new revenues of at least $1 million.

"We're happy to see there's a continued effort to fill that prison back up," said Giese. The Swift County Commissioners sent a letter showing their support of the federal contract.

Appleton Mayor Ron Ronning, who is one of six people still employed at the prison, said the federal contract would be "fabulous" for the local economy.

With $6 million in improvements at the prison in the past 3½ years and full-time maintenance crews still working to keep up the building, Ronning said the prison is ready to house prisoners. He said there would be no trouble meeting federal standards.

Speaking as the mayor, Ronning said he's thrilled to see some movement with reopening the prison. But he cautioned that any excitement be kept in check until there's a firm answer.

"Our hopes are high," he said. "But not too high."

If the prison does get the contract, Ronning said it will be "quite a day" in Appleton. In the meantime, Ronning said he believes state corrections officials are continuing efforts to work with the prison to house state inmates there.

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