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Joliet council postpones prison purchase

Brock A. Stein | 5/3/2017, 7:44 a.m.
The Joliet City Council on Tuesday tabled a plan to purchase the Collins Street prison complex from the state of ...
The former Joliet Correctional Center on Collins Street in Joliet.

The Joliet City Council on Tuesday tabled a plan to purchase the Collins Street prison complex from the state of Illinois Department of Corrections citing the need for more information about the cost of ownership.

Under a plan outlined by City Manager Jim Hock and Joliet Historical Museum director Greg Peerbolte, the city and the museum would co-own the property which would be converted for use as a tourist attraction.

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.

“I constantly hear ‘we don’t want the prison city reputation’,” said Peerbolte.

“I argue, own it. You already have it. And monetize it.”

Peerbolte said that the city could have multiple sources of interest drawing visitors including those who find it as a stop on Route 66 and those coming to see the place associated with films such as the Blues Brothers, Bad Boys and the TV show Empire which filmed at the location last year.

City Manager Jim Hock said that the first priority if the city did proceed with the purchase would be to secure the facility and fix safety issues there including some access doors that are open as well as gaps in the fencing. The police responded to a 911 call last year after two women trespassing on the site locked themselves in to a cell. He said that the facility is in an extreme state of dis-repair after the state closed it in 2002 and is still full of material that could potentially catch fire. The city manager said that the fire department has already responded to one fire that destroyed one of the buildings there.

Hock said that a CMAP study conducted on the facility proposed several plans to renovate the prison ranging from $3.8 million up to $79 million. Hock recommended a smaller-scale plan that would see the city purchase the facility for $100,000 and initially begin to put up trespassing signs, motion detector lights and begin to communicate that “If you trespass on this site you will be arrested.”

Hock said that initial tours would be of the outside of the facility and could attract visitors from as far away as Chicago.

Council members were cautious and asked for a further assessment of the facility to get a better idea of how much the city would have to invest in the renovation and upkeep. Despite the state closing the facility in 2002 and allowing it to further fall in to disrepair, the city has been blocked from entering the grounds and only recently gotten permission to enter in order to arrest trespassers.

Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said that the city’s legal staff would reach out to the state to try to get access to the site for an assessment of the cost.

“It’s too many unknowns right now,” said council member Bettye Gavin who along with the rest of the council voted to table the proposal.