With a proposed federal prison seemingly bound for Letcher County, more hard work is needed if the prison is to benefit the county’s economy in the major way its supporters hope.
That is the conclusion of the members of the Letcher County Planning Commission who gathered in a meeting room at Pine Mountain Grill in Whitesburg late last week to listen as U.S. Representative Harold “Hal” Rogers phoned in the news that the new federal budget agreed to by Congress and President Obama includes $444 million for a new federal prison.
“The hard work is just now beginning,” said Letcher County Judge/ Executive Jim Ward.
Ward and other members of the all-volunteer planning commission formed more than 12 years ago say efforts need to begin almost immediately to provide training for Letcher County residents who hope to fill some of the 300 full-time jobs expected to be made available when the prison becomes operational. Ward said the county’s small busi- ness owners must also be schooled on the process of becoming a vendor or service provider for the prison.
“We want our small businesses to grow here,” Ward said. “If we don’t get that done then we’ll let the boat leave us again.”
Language in the budget approved December 18 does not say the $444 million designated for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons must be used to build a prison in Letcher County, but Planning Commission Chairman Elwood Cornett said the county is at the top of the Bureau’s list of future construction projects.
Planning commission members also point out that Rep. Rogers, who now chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has been working to get a prison constructed here since shortly after the planning commission was formed in 2004.
“I’ve never known Hal to fail in 30 years,” said Whitesburg businessman Don Childers, who helped form the planning commission and has given it a place to meet since its inception. Childers recalled last week that Rogers “was in this room 12 years ago and said we would embark (on getting a federal prison) and that it would be a long journey.”
“A fellow like Hal only comes once in a hundred years,” Childers said of the Somerset Republican who has represented Letcher and 29 other counties that make up the Fifth Congressional District since 1981.
The possibility of a federal prison being located in Letcher County started to look more like a probability in 2006 when Rogers secured $5 million in funding to enable the Bureau of Prisons to initiate the site planning and selection process for a possible prison location here. The six sites initially analyzed were eventually reduced to two. A 700-mountaintop site at Roxana eventually was chosen as the best site for the prison over a smaller tract below Fishpond Lake at Payne Gap.
“It’s certainly been a long, hard process,” Cornett told fellow planning commission members after Rogers made his announcement. “We’ve seen this thing broaden out and narrow into the Roxana site.”
While all indications are a new prison will be built at Roxana, Cornett said the choice would not become final until after the Bureau of Prisons enters a “record of decision,” probably in April.
“Thanks to the leadership and progress of the Letcher County Planning Commission, Letcher County is well on its way to a record of decision, which will allow a prison to be built in the Roxana community,” Danielle Smoot, a spokeswoman for Rogers, told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Smoot told the Herald- Leader that Rogers worked to get money in the budget to “fast-track” construction of a new prison in order to relieve overcrowding at other facilities.
Smoot said that many medium- and high-security federal prisons have 40 to 50 percent more inmates than they were built to house. Construction of the prison, which could begin sometime in 2016, is expected to take up to five years to complete.
The planning commission’s ability to generate strong local support for the prison is expected to give Letcher County an advantage when the Bureau of Prisons makes its final decision, said Nik Camic, who works out of Rogers’s Hazard field office. More than 2,000 Letcher County residents submitted comments or signed petitions supporting the prison.
“This group has done an amazing job of rallying this community,” said Camic.
The prison would house about 1,200 men, most in a high-security facility behind walls and a lethal electrified fence, but some at a minimum-security camp. It would provide an estimated 300 full-time jobs.
There are already four large federal prisons in eastern Kentucky — in Clay, Martin, McCreary and Boyd counties — that house a total of about 6,000 male inmates.
Cornett said he has learned from talking to offi cials in McCreary County that a number of the top jobs at the prison there now belong to lifelong McCreary residents after once being held by workers brought into the county by the Bureau of Prisons.
“More and more of their local people have gotten jobs,” Cornett said, explaining to the planning commission that the Bureau is “not going to open a new prison with amateurs.”
Ward pointed out than whenever the prison’s higher ups do accept jobs and move into Letcher County they become “citizens of this county.”
“They’re going to be living here and spending their money here,” Ward said.
Where the employees will live after the prison is built is one of many issues the planning commission will now focus on in hopes of providing guidance to those interested in building some of the housing that is expected to be needed within the next three to five years.
Childers said local property owners shouldn’t be expected “to run out and borrow half a million dollars to build 10 homes.”
“That wouldn’t be practical,” he said.
“I would encourage this group to remain diligent on this,” Camic, the Rogers field representative, said of the housing question and other issues the county will be facing if the prison is indeed built here.
Regardless of the issues that must be addressed later, planning commission members are rightfully happy with what they have accomplished to this point.
“Oh happy day!” said Reed Caudill, CEO of Community Trust Bank’s Whitesburg operations. “We need some positive news right now. Our whole community has suffered.”
“I expected good news, but not that (much) good news,” said Tony Sergent, planning commission member and Letcher Schools uperintendent.
“It’s a great Christmas present for Letcher County,” added commission member Ted Adams, a longtime community volunteer of Letcher who is retired from the coal industry.
“That’s almost more than we could ask for,” Cornett, the planning commission chairman, said of the $444 million budget allotment announced by Rogers. “We’re ready to launch into a new era.”