Four years ago, controversy erupted when a previous board of commissioners contemplated bringing a maximum-security prison to the county. The idea died mostly because the state scaled back plans for new prisons.
Now the state seems to be in the market once more for land for new prisons, but this time is looking to build smaller minimum-security prisons. The county would have to foot the bill for land — about 100 acres — and turn it over to the state. In return, the county would score decent-paying, stable, blue-collar jobs with good benefits.
Last week during a retreat, commissioners informally discussed whether such a prison would be a good economic development move for the county. Commissioner Chairman Larry Ammons said the state was looking for a site west of Asheville. Ammons had learned about the state’s renewed interest in prison sites and had been asked by leaders in Raleigh if Haywood County was still interested.
The top question on commissioners’ minds was whether land costs for a prison would be a wise investment for the number of jobs it would bring.
“With the value of land in Haywood County, 100 acres would be pretty expensive,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.
“That would be true for any economic development site,” Ammons replied.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said he wasn’t opposed to a state prison in theory, but it would all depend on the number of jobs the county would get in return.
“I wasn’t opposed to it then and I’m not opposed to it now,” Kirkpatrick said. “I would want to know how many jobs it would actually bring.”
Four years ago, a large and vocal movement organized against the idea of a maximum-security prison in Haywood County. Opponents packed commissioner meetings and held forums that attracted more than 200 people. Reasons for opposition varied. Some argued the prison would hurt property values and damage the county’s reputation, slowing the second-home and tourism industries.
Others argued against the flaws of the American penal system in general, decrying a system that locks up minor drug users instead of rehabilitating them. They argued that prison jobs are emotionally unpleasant and the money spent buying land for a prison would be better spent recruiting other jobs instead.
It remains to be seen whether similar opposition will crop up against the idea of a minimum-security prison, which is a different kind of facility than maximum-security prisons that house first-degree murderers.
Four years ago, a counter movement developed in support of the jobs the prison would bring. Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe, who was on the board four years ago when the idea was broached, said she was lobbied by local people who wanted the jobs.
One problem was finding land. A countywide search for 200 acres of suitable land was conducted four years ago. The most promising tract was located near exit 37 off Interstate 40 near the Buncombe County line. But it’s unclear whether that property owner would still be willing to sell his land for a prison.
“He was lobbied pretty hard by the folks in that community not to sell,” County Attorney Chip Killian said.
Now that the state is talking about only 100 acres for a minimum-security prison, there could be other options that weren’t identified during the search four years ago, Ammons said.