With public statements made by state officials recently, Floyd County officials are optimistic about the possibility of a prison opening in Wheelwright.
A few weeks ago, county officials were worried that a lease the former governor signed to house state prisoners in Wheelwright would be tossed out under this new administration, but they are now encouraged by public statements made by Gov. Andy Beshear and administrators attending a hearing on capital projects on Tuesday.
Beshear talked about the prison in Wheelwright at a recent press conference in which he highlighted the need for criminal justice reform in the state.
“The lease entered into by the (administration of former Gov. Matt Bevin) for the Wheelwright facility gives us an option to purchase as well,” Beshear said. “We are going to explore that option because a state facility in an area where we could actually be able to hire people would be a less inexpensive proposition that might give us the flexibility at ultimately closing some of those facilities that are impacting this budget and at different times might not be the optimal environment for those inmates.”
Floyd County Judge-Executive Robbie Williams said he is more optimistic about the possibility of the state housing prisoners in Wheelwright.
“We’re getting very positive feedback from the folks at the state level, that this is, this is going to happen,” Williams said on Tuesday, Jan. 21. “I’m not saying definitely. There’s still some hurdles to overcome, but considering where we was at three weeks ago, in the dark, still trying to push our officials in Frankfort to move on this, I feel a lot better today about the chances of it opening.”
The day he made those remarks, Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Mary Noble, Finance and Administration Cabinet Secretary Holly M. Johnson and Governor’s Executive Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown gave a report about the lease to the Capital Projects and Bond Oversight Committee in Frankfort.
Recordings of that hearing were not available prior to print deadline, but Sen. Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg, reported that the Department of Corrections recommended continuing the lease contract with CoreCivic for the prison in Wheelwright.
“Justice Cabinet Secretary Noble said the new staff could be hired, trained, and ready to transfer prisoners by May. The Governor also noted that there is an option to buy,” Turner reported on social media.
In an interview Wednesday, Turner said that the lease “is not a done-deal,” but said the state plans to work with CoreCivic on a lease-purchase agreement. He said he and state Rep. Ashley Tackett Laferty have talked with Beshear several times about the prison.
“Since Gov. Beshear has come in, Ashley and I have had several conversations with him about the prison and we encouraged him to work with CoreCivic to do the lease, and he has reinforced, about every time that we’ve talked to him about it, he’s reinforced that he wants to try to do that and work with CoreCivic on a lease-purchase possibility,” Turner said. “It’s not a done deal, but he’s going to talk with them about a lease-purchase possibility with the prison. But they are going to lease it. He tells us that they are going to lease it, and Secretary Mary Noble made the announcement the other day that they’re going to do that. So, it’s going to be a good thing for Floyd County, Eastern Kentucky and Wheelwright.”
Turner said he believes state officials are planning to “re-do the lease” with CoreCivic.
“They’re going to follow up and do a lease with CoreCivic with options to renew the lease. I think, originally, they were talking about doing 10 years with the lease, but I think the governor said he was probably going to reduce that with options to release, to lease it over and over,” Turner said. “And he’s all for it. Gov. Beshear is all for doing the lease and trying to work with them on a lease purchase, to try to purchase it because it will be about 175 to 200 jobs in Eastern Kentucky and we’ve got about 1,200 to 1,300 inmates in county jails that don’t need to be in county jails. They’re overcrowded. And this will take about 600 or 650 off of that and get them out of the county jails.”
Turner praised Beshear for this effort.
“It’s good to have a governor that will work with you, and try to do what they have to do to help move Kentucky forward,” Turner said. “It still has to go through the process, but I think he’s, if he signs the lease, it will go through the process.”
Turner attended the ceremony in Wheelwright in October when the former governor signed a 10-year, $41 million lease with CoreCivic for the prison and 112 acres of property in Wheelwright.
In the lease agreement, CoreCivic gives the state an option to buy the prison at any time during the term of the lease at the “fair market value,” as determined by an independent, third-party appraiser.
Williams said housing state prisoners in Wheelwright would be a “shot in the arm” for the county.
“It’s going to be 200 jobs that start out at a minimum of $30,000 per person,” he said. “That’s $6 million a year, just in payroll. That’s direct wages. Now, by the time that money rolls over, a time or two, in our local communities, and these are going to be local employees, I mean, you’re talking about a $10 million impact in our community.”