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Since the May 22 tornado, area residents have debated the question: Should the state pay an estimated $9.4 million to repair the old Missouri State Penitentiary?

Maybe the question should be: Should the state still own the old prison?

Even before the prison closed in 2004, a state law established an MSP Redevelopment Commission and gave it the power to acquire the title to the property. That never happened.

Some would argue maintaining an old prison goes beyond state government’s role of providing essential services to taxpayers. But it’s not unprecedented for government to maintain such historic sites. Alcatraz, once a feared prison, now is operated by the National Park Service and is open for tours.

Likewise, MSP is historic. Known as the “bloodiest 50 acres in America,” it opened in 1836 and was the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi by the time it closed in 2004. Its history is filled with stories of riots, violence, escapes and famous inmates.

Since 2008, thousands of people have streamed in to tour the historic site.

But should the state continue to own the property? The site needs $9.4 million in repairs from the tornado. Even before the tornado, it needed a good amount of restoration from aging.

Some would argue it makes sense for the state, which could come up with such a sum of money, to keep owning/maintaining the prison.

However, the state hasn’t shown consistent dedication in maintaining MSP as a historic site or giving local entities a good amount of leeway to transform it into a more productive use.

Last year, the state deeded about 32 acres of the prison property to the city. That land didn’t contain the historic buildings on the prison tours. The gas chamber is on the land, but the state retained ownership of it.

City and Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau officials seem happy with their MSP partnership with the state under Gov. Mike Parson. But it hasn’t always been that way. Under former Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration, for instance, some local leaders felt hamstrung with their MSP efforts.

Since the tornado, the state hasn’t come up with a plan to fund repairs to MSP, and the Jefferson City CVB has stopped the prison tours it had operated there. It’s unknown when they will resume.

With declining inmates nationwide, other states are dealing with the issue of how to make past prisons productive again. Many have incorporated public-private partnerships.

That could be a viable solution for MSP. We should reconsider this, as it was the original intent of the post-prison property.

The state could divest itself from the property, which it no longer needs, and let the city, CVB and private businesses take over.

It still could be maintained as a historic property, while using a combination of private capital, tax incentives and possibly public bonding to fund repairs/maintenance.

News Tribune

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