Death Penalty Arizona

FILE — In this July 23, 2014, file photo, a fence surrounds the state prison in Florence, Ariz.

FLORENCE — The closing of Arizona State Prison-Florence Complex, which first looked like a major setback for Florence, is beginning to look more like an opportunity, Town Manager Brent Billingsley said.

After the initial surprise of Gov. Doug Ducey’s announcement in early 2020, “we immediately reached out and had good communication with the director of state prisons (David Shinn) and his staff, and have quite honestly built an excellent relationship with both the director and the staff,” Billingsley said in a year-end interview with the Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune.

“We know this (prison closure) will definitely have an impact on the finances of the town. We’re not exactly sure what that will be going forward because of the many changes that may occur over the next several years. But we’re convinced that, through our partnerships and our ongoing conversations with the state, we’re going to have a successful transition” to a redevelopment of the prison property.

Billingsley said state corrections officials appear to share Florence’s goal of a productive new use for the property.

“They’re very much interested, and we’ve had several conversations with them regarding reuse. They see that property and the facility just like the town does, as a resource. … Clearly they have a very valuable piece of land there,” with its own water wells and storage, “and a lot of land that quite honestly could be reused in a way that not only benefits the town and the region, but also the state and the prisons as well.

“We have a resource in that historic prison and historic buildings,” Billingsley continued. “We also have opportunities to enhance things like Arizona Correctional Industries and partnerships that the state has already with large employers that they’d like to enhance,” including job training, education and other programs that help inmates lead successful lives and not re-offend after they’re released, Billingsley said.

He said it’s taking something that can be looked at as a negative and turning that very much into a positive going forward.

“So I’ve been very excited about those ongoing conversations and the willingness — and excitement quite honestly — from the state perspective to look at opportunities going forward. …We have very limited industrial land in Florence — and what an opportunity to stimulate growth and economic development through potential investment from multiple parties.”

A silver lining in the pandemic has been that closure plans have been more or less on hold. Although it was discussed in the last legislative session, it wasn’t included in the state’s reduced budget. “So in terms of the wholesale closure of that facility and the schedule that was discussed, that is not on at this time.

“However, it’s clear there’s been a draw-down of prisoners,” Billingsley said, “not only at our facilities here in town but statewide over the last 11 months.” This month there were approximately 38,000 inmates in state custody and last year there were about 42,500, which is about an 11% decline.

The Florence Complex population is down approximately 30%, from 3,600 a year ago to about 2,500 now, largely due to closure of North Unit. Corrections staff told town staff that North Unit needed to close, not just because of its age but because much of the housing was in tents.

Another reason for the decline in inmates is the courts, because of the pandemic, have been hindered in holding trials and sentencing inmates. Shinn has told town staff that as the legal system gets back up to speed, there will be a growth in inmate numbers statewide, Billingsley said. Florence’s other inmate populations have remained “fairly stable,” Billingsley said.

“I think it’s important to highlight we have a good relationship with the director and his staff, we have ongoing conversations with them and those have been fruitful in terms of options for moving forward.”

Florence’s downtown sewer plant was built as large as it is to serve the prison, and if that population disappears, it will be a problem for the utility. But the town and the state are working on a solution there as well.

“It’s true the state prison is our largest sewer customer — absolutely true,” Billingsley said. Arizona State Prison-Eyman Complex in Florence has its own sewer plant, but it’s a difficult resource for them to maintain and “not their typical line of business,” Billingsley said.

As a result, town and state officials are studying a solution that could benefit them both. A possible solution is closing the Eyman sewer plant and converting it to a lift station. Through a network of force mains, the untreated sewage could be brought to the town’s downtown wastewater plant.

As part of those discussions, the town hired an engineering firm for an analysis and cost estimate. That report has been completed and the town has shared it with the state. “Conversations are ongoing with respect to us cooperatively solving a problem that benefits both parties,” Billingsley said.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.