Joliet finalizes deal to lease Collins Street prison

12/20/2017, 10:51 a.m.
The City of Joliet has approved an agreement with the State that will give it access to the former Collins ...

The City of Joliet has approved an agreement with the State that will give it access to the former Collins Street prison site with an eye toward turning the former penitentiary in to a tourist attraction.

The plan to convert the site in to an attraction was first proposed by former Joliet City Manager Jim Hock in May. At the time, Hock, along with Joliet Historical Museum Director Greg Peerbolte outlined the potential the site could serve to attract tourists to stroll through the grounds and former cell blocks.

The plan in May called for the city to purchase the prison site for $100,000 though under the newly proposed 5-year lease with the state the city will not pay anything.

The state closed the facility in 2002 during which time it fell in to disrepair and the city had been blocked from entering the grounds and only recently received permission to enter in order to arrest trespassers.

Hock cited a CMAP study conducted on the facility that proposed a range of plans to renovate the prison from $3.8 million up to $79 million. The first step he recommended would have initially just secured the location from trespassers after police responded to a 911 call in 2016 when two urban explorers locked themselves in to a cell. This year, parts of the facility burned over Memorial Day weekend in a case that was later ruled as arson.

In May, Peerbolte cited the success of other prisons-turned-attractions including Alcatraz, Sing Sing, and the Ohio reformatory where the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption was filmed. In all of those cases, he said, tourism of the prisons was a consistent source of revenue. The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia nets just over $2 million from its haunted house that runs from September through October said Peerbolte who encouraged the city to embrace its renown as a “prison city.”

In July, members of the city council, the mayor and city staff toured the grounds to determine the viability of a plan to rehab the facility for an attraction.

City Council member Pat Mudron was circumspect about the free, 5-year lease on Monday during the pre-council meeting.

“Do we have a business plan for this?,” he asked citing a need for cleaning, maintenance, snow removal and other upkeep.

“Is there anything in our budget for this?”

The city’s inspector general Chris Regis said that he was in negotiations with two outside entities that would partner with the city to re-develop the prison which would cover use of the facility and maintenance.

Regis said that the city wouldn’t be obligated to maintain the prison site under the terms of the agreement but it would take that responsibility off the state.

Council member Larry Hug was concerned about security and the legal responsibility if someone gets injured on the grounds of the prison during the city’s lease period.

“How are we going to secure this vast expanse on both sides of Broadway and what will the cost be?,” he asked.