Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America has Trousdale County in its sights as a possible location for a privately-owned minimum security prison facility.
Dick Walker, director of Four Lake PowerCom Industrial Site, said today the Four Lake office received a correspondence from CCA representatives last Monday, Jan. 15, requesting exploratory information about available land in the Four Lake properties.
"They were looking for information on location, availability of utilities, a topographical map, and other very basic preliminary facts," said Walker.
"We proceeded to collect the information they requested, and I handed some preliminary information to CCA reps yesterday in person."
Walker said the group will continue to provide CCA with information "to help them determine if Four Lake is suitable for their short list of location possibilities. This is still unfolding, and people are asking for some information that hasn't yet been determined, such as price of the land," explained Walker.
"That would depend on several variables, including which parcel or parcels they think might be suitable for a site."
The Four Lake director emphasized "no decisions have been made, but it seems like an opportunity to bring over 300 jobs to the area, which is what we're here to do.
"Once they've arrived at a decision to move forward, we'll be able to address some of the details and answer some of the questions people have right now," Walker added.
Into growth phase
CCA spokesperson Louise Grant confirmed the company, which currently houses 17,000 inmates in 19 states and the District of Columbia, has looked at the Four Lake properties.
"We're in the very initial stages of the process," Grant said. "At this point, we're conducting site assessments across the country."
Grant said CCA is moving into a growth phase, "where we've told investors we're looking at housing 4,000 to 6,000 new correctional beds.
"Some of those beds will involve new facilities and some will mean expansion of existing facilities. To that end, we're starting to focus on states where population demands have created a shortage of beds, and Tennessee is one of those states," she said, adding that a typical CCA facility houses 1,500 beds.
In addition to demand, CCA weighs several factors when looking at potential sites for a new facility, according to Grant. Some of those factors include topography, availability of water, sewage and other facilities, a town's infrastructure and available work force and the market wage for an area.
"We certainly look at acceptance in a community as part of our feasibility study," added Grant. "But we bring so much economic vitality to an area, and our employees become contributing citizens of the community, joining local civic clubs and Chambers of Commerce and volunteering in other ways. Once residents realize that we have an excellent record for operating safe, secure facilities, and once they realize the economic and civic benefits, most feel that a CCA facility is a great addition to the community."
Public officials offer views
County Executive Jerry Clift feels a CCA facility would be a boon to Trousdale County.
"We've got to find something to keep taxes from going up and bring in cash and jobs for the people. That's one of the promises I made when I took office," Clift said. "We've got the $2 million spec building out at Four Lake. I've looked at several possible industries to bring in, and this [the prison industry] was one of them.
"I've visited several comparable facilities, including the CCA facility in Hardeman County," continued Clift. "The mayors and county executives I've talked with where there's a facility were tickled with it. They felt like it really helped their area. They said the privately-owned facilities are usually at or above the state's standards for prisons."
State Rep. Stratton Bone, D-Lebanon, agrees.
"This is a decision for local officials in Trousdale County, of course," Bone said. "But I can certainly see the advantages.
"During the [Gov. Ned] McWherter administration I was on the Tri-Corps Board, which contracted with industries, working behind the scenes to help bring jobs to areas," Bone continued. "I visited several small towns where prisons were located, and they all seemed to think of it [being a location for a prison]
as a plus.
Former County Executive Pat Ferguson, who now works as a consultant for a government relations firm, is serving as CCA's liaison to Trousdale County.
"It's not a done deal by any means, but they [CCA] are very interested in Trousdale County as a location and they're gathering information," said Ferguson.
"A county's sources of revenue are as of much importance as holding expenditures in check," Ferguson observed. "Spending is always going to increase. But the state limits a local government's sources of income."
While Ferguson noted that a local government's best source of increased revenue is property taxes, Trousdale County is limited by its size and small tax base.
"It's necessary for us to find other sources of revenue, and that's how I see this opportunity with CCA," Ferguson said.
"This has been rumored for some time," he added. "It caught my interest when I heard about the impact it could have on our tax base."
According to Ferguson, the assessed value for Trousdale County's tax base from July 2006 to June 2007 is $93 million. However, the CCA prison could amount to a 20 percent increase to Tennessee's smallest county's tax base.
"And these jobs would be stable," he added. "They wouldn't go to Mexico or overseas like some industries might."
During the past week, Ferguson has worked with CCA to put together an information sheet to distribute to local government figures and businesses.
Additionally, Clift has approached several individuals.
"There's a lot of support for it," said Clift.
According to Grant, the benefits CCA can bring to an area include 300-400 professional jobs.
"We want people to build a career with our company," Grant said. "We promote from within, and people have the opportunity to advance and even move to other CCA locations around the country.
"A prison facility is much like a small city," Grant continued. "The warden is comparable to the mayor. Then you have the administrative jobs, the human resources division, a business manager, maintenance supervisors, teachers, chaplains, doctors and nurses, substance abuse counselors, and case managers.
"Of course, the correctional officers and security staff would be the law enforcement," Grant added. "We value ex-military personnel. The hierarchy in prison security is very similar to that of the military, so this is a great opportunity for those who have served in the armed forces to find a new career."
According to figures provided by CCA, starting salaries for correctional officers would be in the $20,000-$25,000 range. Additionally, CCA would offer benefits to its employees. According to Grant, it also works to improve the lives of the offenders within its walls.
"CCA is more than just a prison. It has a strong commitment to programs for its residents," Grant said. "We have education programs that enable offender to earn their GED, and we work with local colleges to offer them the chance to study for undergraduate degrees or get vocational training.
"We also have a lot of volunteer help, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and faith-based programs," Grant added.
The primary opposition to a prison coming to a community would be due to a fear of prison breaks.
"Scare tactics are an easy sell," Ferguson said.
"We're looking at a minimum security facility," Clift said. "We would not house hardened criminals there.
"Sometimes we face opposition initially in a community, until they're better educated about who and what we are," said Grant. "But once the local citizens understand the economic advantages for their county and the professional opportunities for themselves, and once they see that CCA gives back into the community, they value its employers and the contributions it makes."
Ferguson noted that if all factors fall into place for the project to move ahead, "we're looking at the facility opening in about two years."
Grant declined to offer a timeframe for CCA's decision, noting they have not yet heard from their design construction assessors.
"We'll need to look at the building costs once that information is in," Grant said.
Hartsville Vidette Managing Editor Liz Ferrell may be reached at 615-374-3556 or via e-mail at email@example.com.