Will Prison Farm business become business?

Dec. 01, 2012 @ 09:00 PM

What to do with the Guilford County Prison Farm is now a decision for the new Board of County Commissioners.
Should the 800 acres near Gibsonville become a job magnet corporate park or remain a medium-security detention center with a potential for additional farming and other rural uses?
After starting down a path toward spending $100,000 to develop a business plan for the property, commissioners suddenly reversed course last month and left the question open for debate among business leaders and open space advocates. At one time the Prison Farm was part of plans to deal with jail overcrowding, but with the opening of the new 1,000-bed County Detention Center earlier this year, there is little need for the property to handle an overflow.
“We have reluctantly consented that the new board should take on this task,” outgoing Commissioners Chairman Skip Alston, a Greensboro Democrat, announced as speakers presented arguments last month for and against the project during the old board’s last meeting. “The new board can do the deliberations on it.”
Republicans will dominate the new nine-member board.
Anne Cassebaum, a prison farm neighbor, says commissioners have ignored what neighbors want to do with the grassland and streams on the property.
“People have taken a stand for open space,” Cassebaum said during speakers time, “and approved $10 million in bonds for it. Protection for agriculture is being ignored. If you spend money for this plan, you will oppose open space taxpayers want. A development is a recipe for waste and sprawl.”
The old board of 11 commissioners disclosed a plan in September to allow a company or companies to offer a project that would create at least 400 new jobs and add at least $85 million to the county’s tax base.
The only proposed buyer, a food distribution center offering 500 jobs, passed on the deal citing a lack of roads and water and sewer service for the property. The reversal is the second for development plans. Citing the lack of a development plan, the County Planning Board declined to rezone the property for business in October. Commissioners countered with the development proposal that included spending as much as $50,000 to hire a law firm to handle the rezoning.
Some businessmen don’t want the county to develop a corporate park. They prefer infrastructure contributions.
Developer Richard Beard, a partner in a firm that manages and markets the nearby Rock Creek Center, said he was not opposed to developing the farm. The center is home to Precor, Lenovo and American Express.
“We are not afraid of the competition,” Beard said. “But we need to study the best uses for the land and how to invest funds for the infrastructure and $50,000 may not be enough for a master plan.”
Open space advocates say the county has a plan dedicating the farm to open space.
“It makes no sense to throw out the area plan,” said George Teague, a dairy farmer and chairman of the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District board. “There is agricultural use out there. We should work with the plan.”
Earlier this year, Dan Lynch, president of the Greensboro Economic Development Alliance, urged commissioners to consider opening up portions of the medium-security prison farm for development. He worked behind the scenes to match the property with potential buyers.
“There seems to be a rush to spend a lot of money on this development,” said Alice Patterson of the county’s Open Space Committee. “The county’s open space report lists the farm as an open space area.”
Among the remaining incumbent commissioners, Democratic Commissioners Bruce Davis of High Point, Carolyn Coleman and Kay Cashion supported rezoning the property for business along with Republican Commissioner Linda Shaw.  Republican Commissioner Bill Bencini of High Point is the only remaining incumbent opposed to the original rezoning plan.
Alston and Shaw spoke in favor of rezoning the Prison Farm at the planning board hearing.
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County Prison Farm

Location: 7315 Howerton Road, Gibsonville.
Area: 806 acres
Built: 1935. The Guilford County Sheriff’s Department has operated the farm since 1998.
Inmates: More than 100, minimum custody.
Activities: Cattle and egg production, greenhouses and feed crops. Occupational training. Inmates also provide grounds maintenance at the county schools, parks and other properties.