February 6, 2013

Hallowell residents express support for keeping pre-release center in town

Community meeting allowed residents to express concerns about proposed move to Warren facility

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

HALLOWELL -- Local residents said Wednesday they have benefited from the work provided by the inmates from the Central Maine Pre-Release Center, and they urged their local representative to find a way to keep the program in central Maine.

About 50 people attended a meeting at Hallowell City Hall organized by Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, who wanted to see what community members had to say about a plan to move the center to the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren. Today there are about 58 prisoners and 21 employees at the Hallowell facility.

The Department of Corrections told workers at the pre-release center last month that the state will move the program out of Hallowell. Commissioner Joseph Ponte told lawmakers Monday he hoped to have the move complete by July 1.

On Wednesday, however, residents who represent local communities and nonprofits said they don't want to lose a valuable resource.

"They have given us a countless number of hours," said Dean Lachance, executive director of Bread of Life in Augusta.

Lachance said the inmates painted his 30-bed shelter last year, put new flooring in his veterans homeless shelter and performed work in other housing units around the city. He said the program helps the inmates, too, by giving them skills and introducing them to the community services they might need once they are released.

Jack Walsh, of the Hallowell Food Bank and the Hubbard Free Library, said his agencies often need the manpower to haul food and books.

"We would hate to lose what these guys have done for us," he said.

Those who live in Manchester, Windsor and Litchfield also said they have saved large amounts of tax money through the years because of the program.

The Stevens School complex was first put up for sale in 2008. Initially, the city of Hallowell expressed interest in buying the 63-acre, 13-building complex. It later rescinded a $600,000 offer, and the property has been listed for sale in recent years for $1.1 million.

The complex was one of the state properties that was supposed to be sold to balance the state budget, Treat said. It hasn't sold, however, and it isn't being marketed for sale.

"We have heard nothing for two entire years," she said.

Jennifer Smith, director of legislative affairs and communications at the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said discussions about moving all state offices off the campus have been going on for the past year. The Department of Marine Resources and other offices also are on the campus.

"There has been an ongoing dialogue between the Bureau of General Services and Corrections for at least a year," she said.

The bureau is putting together a five-to-10-year plan for all state properties in the capital area, as well as in Bangor and Portland. While some state offices may stay on the Stevens campus as anchor tenants, it was never envisioned that the pre-release center would be an appropriate anchor for a private developer, she said.

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Chris Paszyc, a property broker with CBRE/The Boulos Co., which had the listing at one time, said the presence of the pre-release center on the property made it a tough sell.

"I would say that was the major stumbling block," he said.

At the meeting Wednesday night, some suggested that other state office space in Augusta might be an option. Others said it would be better to stay in Hallowell, where local residents have reported few problems with the inmates.

Jim Durkin, a labor union representative for the employees at the pre-release center, said he was encouraged to see so much support for the program.

"I hope in the coming weeks and months we can build a coalition to put a stop to this and find a better solution," he said.

Treat said she would talk to fellow lawmakers, some of whom expressed concern Monday about the proposed move, to see whether anything can be done.

"It's pretty sudden for us," she said. "It's still pretty new. I don't know whether we can affect the outcome."

Susan Cover -- 621-5643

scover@mainetoday.com

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