Vigo County ponders best use for former jail property

Jan. 24—Vigo County Council members, along with commissioners, walked through the former Vigo County Jail to gain an idea of its condition and what might be done with the property.

Last year, the Board of Commissioners submitted a study from DLZ, an architectural/engineering firm that designed the county's new security center at 600 W. Honey Creek Drive.

That study looked at five options for the former jail at 201 Cherry St., with costs ranging from $500,000 to $26.5 million. Those options included:

* Tearing down the exiting facility and building a new 911 building;

* Demolishing part of the former security center that housed the jail and renovating the remaining portion for 911

* Rehabbing and repurposing the entire facility into a rehabilitation/treatment facility

* Converting the entire facility into a new juvenile center;

* Using the facility for storage and keeping 911 in the ba

* sement.

Council President R. Todd Thacker said the walk-through left some questions unanswered on its use and he remains "on the fence" as far as options.

"I tried to go into that [tour] with an open mind," Thacker said. "I still don't think I have enough answers. It is in dire of need of repairs, and if we are to maintain it, I think what we have to figure out what is the intentional use for [the building] and how much that would cost to get it to that state [it must be in] versus tearing it down and possibly building something new.

"I am still on the fence on it because I went in there thinking it is the newest building on the block, as it was built back in the 1980s. It has some issues with the mechanics of it — the chiller and on the exterior. There are definitely some minor issues on the structure," Thacker said.

"But right now I could not say tear it down or repair it because I don't know what the end result is and what [county commissioners] are wanting to use it for."

Thacker said the DLZ study did not provide a one-to-one match for costs for a specific use. For example, if the building could be remodeled for office space or court space, what is that cost versus demolition and building new for the same use?

"That is what I want to get from commissioners," he said.

Councilwoman Marie Theisz said she is leaning toward demolishing the former jail and building a new structure.

"It will be really hard structurally and cost-wise to do renovation. You have a lot of cinder block walls and jail cells. Some things get so bad, it is better to tear down and start from scratch," Theisz said.

"I am probably a little bit more in the line of let's do something and do something right, which means I am probably leaning more toward we need to move on and do something new," Theisz said. "I want to look at what is most cost effective."

While leaving the old jail, Councilman Aaron Loudermilk said he thinks the older portion of the building can be used for storage. Another section, that is 20 years newer, can be converted into office space and used for pre-trail programming aimed at reducing the population of the new jail, he said.

"We all know there are two different sides to this (building)," Loudermilk said. "An older side and a new side, which is about 20 years old. We refer to that as the newer side even though it is 20 years old. The older side is in a lot of disarray in some spots and has a lot of maintenance issues and the newer side is in better shape," he said.

"... I think for the newer of the two sides there is potential, an opportunity for some additional programming whether that be pre-trial programming or an extension of the community corrections program.

"I would really want to explore our options" before the entire structure is considered for demolition, Loudermilk said.

"This building is right in the middle of the government complex and this is prime real estate, but once you tear this building down you can't un-ring that bell, so I would really want to explore all our of options," he said.

Funding, he said, will drive a final decision, as well as other needs in the county.

"Money is always the issue and what always drives our decision making most times. With things being tight, and with the most recent school referendum being turned down, I think you have to make your dollar stretch as far as you can and this newest part of this facility allows us to do that potentially," Loudermilk said.

Councilwoman Vicki Weger said the former jail building "is a pretty big mess, and I am still trying to gather information as to what what the options are, but I would say it looks pretty grim and would take a great deal of money to rehab it."

But, added, "I will have to talk to other members of the council to see all the possibilities. My mind is still open now on this."

Six of seven council members, along with commissioners, walked through the building. Councilman David Thompson unable to attend, said Commissioner Chris Switzer.

The tour, Switzer said, was an opportunity for council members to see the old jail "and form their own opinion on what should happen with this property, whether it is a remodel or demolition or what the future looks like here on this part of the Vigo County campus."

Switzer said he favors a new site, with new offices for public defenders, Vigo CASA, as well as cite for a potential new seventh Vigo Superior Court for juveniles.

"We are looking at this a potential spot for that court...we are kind of thinking about all kinds of things but we want to gather the input from council members and most importantly get that (subject) pushed out to the community to see what they would expect with this property," Switzer said.

The commissioner said the county and city will have to work collectively, as well as consider Art Spaces Inc.'s Return to the River project when making a decision for the government site.

Commissioners, he said, plan to hold a public session sometime in February to gain public input.

Additionally, Switzer said a separate study, slated to be completed in March, focuses on the current juvenile center and options for that.

"The most important thing right now is Vigo County [911] Dispatch. We need to find a place to put and keep them, where they are safe, comfortable and able to do their jobs to the best of their ability," Switzer said.

"Right now in the basement [of the former jail] is not it, so moving forward we are trying to find a place to put them."

Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or Follow on Twitter @TribStarHoward.