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Our View

Our view: Joliet should pump brakes on acquiring old prison

Mayor Bob O'Dekirk enters the Collins Street prison Thursday, July 13, 2017, while touring the abandoned correctional facility in Joliet, Ill. Members of the Joliet City Council and the Joliet Area Historical Museum toured the facility to assess the complex's condition as they consider taking over ownership from the state.
Mayor Bob O'Dekirk enters the Collins Street prison Thursday, July 13, 2017, while touring the abandoned correctional facility in Joliet, Ill. Members of the Joliet City Council and the Joliet Area Historical Museum toured the facility to assess the complex's condition as they consider taking over ownership from the state.

This isn’t just any prison. We know that.

It’s got history, having been open from 1858 to 2002. It’s known, it’s historic, it’s been closed down and deteriorating since 2002. Back in 2014, there was another of many pushes to preserve the prison. At that point, the Urban Land Institute of Chicago estimated it would cost $3.8 million to stabilize the entire property.

At this point, with further deterioration and inflation, it’s hard to imagine that cost wouldn’t be higher.

It’s clear that people want to see inside. A photo tour of the prison from late March on our website is the most viewed item ever on our company’s websites.

What the city of Joliet needs now, however, is a clear financial analysis of the costs associated with taking over the prison and trying to turn into a tourist destination.

The public needs numbers, which haven’t been shown yet, to prove this is a good idea. And a firm plan needs to be set before the city should attempt to take over the property from its current owner, the Illinois Department of Corrections.

There are insurance and liability concerns, structural concerns, security concerns and financial concerns.

And the total property being discussed is actually much larger than just the old prison. It includes open spaces, places the Joliet Park District and forest preserve have discussed using, an old women’s prison and more.

There also is contamination on the property, found in a 2015 review of the property, that has yet to be remedied.

If the city had so much discussion before allotting $500,000 for the Rialto, a functioning theater, this year. Then a much-larger project such as the prison should require much more detail before approval.

The prison currently is enough of a safety concern that IDOC did not allow reporters to join city officials on a July 13 tour of the facility.

The thought now is that acquiring the facility and getting it ready for some level of tour would cost much less than the total $3.8 million estimate to stabilize the entire property. So what amount of ticket revenue from tours would it take to recoup even a portion of what it would cost to get the prison back in a condition where it would be safe and worthwhile to open the site to tourists?

In 2002, when it closed, making the site a tourist destination would have been much easier than in 2017 and beyond. Conditions have continued to deteriorate and these discussions have occurred before.  

There certainly are current costs, from patrolling the property to prosecution of trespassers in an attempt to keep them off the property. Based on the continued fires and evidence of vandalism and graffiti at the facility, the status quo isn’t a great solution.

It’s a public safety hazard with continued break-ins, fires and people willing to jeopardize not only their own lives but potentially those of emergency workers.

But that doesn’t mean it’s time for the city to jump in with both feet to a project that it hasn’t fully explained publicly. Now is the time to get a much better grasp of the numbers involved before proceeding.

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