Housing, hotels and more planned for area around Jefferson City's former prison
Kurt Erickson | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | July 17, 2017 12:00am
July 17--JEFFERSON CITY -- Missouri's capital city may be known as the home of state government, but this community of 43,100 residents is a prison town at heart.
Eight blocks from the domed Capitol sits the remnants of what was once not only the city's biggest employer, but also one of its largest manufacturing hubs.
The Missouri State Penitentiary is closed and, except for tour groups, nearly abandoned now. But the shuttered structure's imposing walls loom large at the corner of Lafayette Street and Capitol Avenue.
Last week, Gov. Eric Greitens signed legislation that city leaders hope will help rejuvenate the prison and the largely derelict area around it.
The measure turns over 32 acres of state-owned land to the city, which plans to build roads, hotels and new housing in the shadow of the old fortress. Most of the prison structure itself will remain in state hands.
"It can help us to create more jobs with higher pay to attract people to the area," Greitens told a crowd of city and county leaders gathered in one of the musty, vacant cell blocks.
Known as the "Big House," Missouri's first state prison opened in 1836, more than a century before Alcatraz. While Alcatraz held about 300 inmates on an island in San Francisco Bay, Missouri packed 5,200 prisoners into the facility on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River.
The prison and its residents helped make Jefferson City a major manufacturing center. Companies that made clothing and shoes set up shop within the prison walls to take advantage of cheap inmate labor.
It also held its share of infamous inmates, including bank robber Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, boxer Charles "Sonny" Liston and James Earl Ray, who assassinated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Before closing in 2004, the prison had seen more than 2,000 deaths, including 39 who died in the decommissioned gas chamber that is still on the site.
The prison is now a tourist destination, with tours and events at the facility including a recent Independence Day weekend concert by Wynonna Judd. Last year, about 33,000 people toured the facility.
Diane Gillespie, executive director of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the area around the prison is a "hidden gem" that could become an economic driver for the city.
She and city leaders hope to build on the work of a task force that met more than a decade ago to determine what should be done with the facility.
That panel, which issued its report in 2003, suggested nearly two dozen uses for the property and facility. Included in the wish list were a riverfront park, a riverboat landing spot, Amtrak station, a convention center and a new public high school.
Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, called the signing of the land transfer legislation a "great day" for his hometown.
"Not only will this investment in this project help the city, it will also help the state because we know the people who come here to tour the prison don't just come here to tour the prison. They go to Branson. They go to a Cardinal ballgame. It's going to help the whole state," Bernskoetter said.
The original prison footprint covered 147 acres. The city has converted some of that to parkland, while the state has built two office buildings on the land. The federal courthouse for Missouri's central district is across from the main entrance. After subtracting parcels that are streets or railroad rights-of-way, the city will have 19 acres for development.