Moving the county jail from downtown Van Buren will be a boon to civic groups looking to revitalize the city center, local leaders said.
With construction on the county’s new $20 million detention center on U.S. 64 nearing completion, county officials are turning their attention to plans for the old jail building.
When county heads were pushing for voters to approve a sales tax to pay for the new detention center, one of the questions from residents concerned the use of the current jail building and property.
It was promised that the vacated building would be used for county offices. In May 2014, voters approved a three-quarter percent tax for the construction and maintenance of the new detention center.
Those original plans for the old jail haven’t changed, said Crawford County Judge John Hall.
"It has been brought to my attention that there could be other uses for the old jail, but we made a promise to the public," Hall said.
Rusty Myers, chair of Van Buren Original, is glad the county plans to keep its promises, he said.
"Part of the motivation for many in the community, certainly for me, to vote for the sales tax for a new jail was the promise by the county that they would be relocating the downtown detention facility," Myers said.
Van Buren Original (VBO) is a nonprofit group organized in 2014 to help redevelop the city’s downtown area in an effort to make it more attractive to tourists and potential residents.
Named after the original plat of the City of Van Buren, VBO was organized specifically for the purpose of focusing on downtown - the revitalization of the central city, Myers said.
"Certainly one aspect of that plan that is important to us is the relocation of the county jail," Myers said. "Having a detention center in the heart of any downtown is not a compatible use."
Having worked for the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District for 38 years before retiring as assistant executive director in 2012, Myers recognizes the importance of a vital downtown area to the city.
"If we want to be able to attract and retain high quality employees, this is the challenge we face in honing those unique amenities we already have and make them more attractive," Myers said.
Hall has some ideas on how the old jail building and surrounding space could be used to augment Van Buren’s historic district and hopes to bring in city heads and local civic organizations on the discussion, he said.
"We want to welcome everyone it to it," Hall said. "The more interest we get in it, the better off we’ll be."
Some possible uses would be parking for the Drennen-Scott Historic Site or as a stop for the city’s trolley, which was recently put into commission, Hall said.
Hall also suggested that the sally port, a secure entrance for vehicles transporting prisoners, could be used to house the trolley. The space could become an "anchor" on the west end of Main Street for the historic district, Hall said.
Any changes outside groups would like to see made could be included in the renovation with their assistance, he said.
Dennis Gilstrap, Crawford County Department of Emergency Management director and Crawford County judge elect, will be included in the future plans for the old jail, Hall said.
"I won’t be here to see this take place, but I’ll be here to get the ball rolling and Dennis, the future county judge, will be here with me," Hall said.
Hall decided to retire his position as county judge and did not run for reelection this year. Gilstrap was elected the Republican nominee during the March 1 primary and faces no opposition in the General Election in November.
Gilstrap is on board with current plans for the old jail, he said.
"When the county was pushing for the tax for the new jail, people wanted to know what the old jail building would be used for, and that was offices," Gilstrap said. "All along that’s what I felt the building should be used for, because that’s what the public was told."
Gilstrap stressed the importance for the county to maintain a good relationship with the City of Van Buren and downtown civic organizations such as VBO and the Old Town Merchants.
"We want to be good neighbors," Gilstrap said. "We don’t want to do anything to take away from the area; we want to build it up."
It was for the convenience of local criminal lawyers with offices downtown, close to the Crawford County Courthouse, that the current jail was located there in the first place, Myers said.
"At the time there was no real impetus for the revitalization of downtown Van Buren," Myers said.
More solidified uses for the old jail include the relocation of Crawford County Circuit Clerk Sharon Blount-Baker’s offices from the courthouse to the east side of the jail near the front entrance, Hall said.
About 12 circuit clerk employees including Blount-Baker work in a space meant for about three people, Blount-Baker said in a previous interview.
Several large file cabinets, 14 employee work stations, a vault used solely for files and Blount-Baker’s personal office - which holds even more file cabinets - are all crammed into the 1,700-square-feet office space.
Files are held at another three locations, including about 1,200 square feet of storage at Central Record Services in Fort Smith that costs about $7,500 each year to rent plus additional costs each time a file must be pulled, Blount-Baker said.
If the circuit clerk staff are able to move into the old jail building, they will have about 4,000 square feet of space, which should hold Blount-Baker’s offices and files entirely, she said.
Jail cells, which are climate controlled, will be used for document storage, Hall said. The county could save about $20,000 in storage rental costs alone by using the old jail, he said.
Hall expects the county coroner’s office will move to the jail, as well, he said.
Though the Crawford County public defender moved into a rented space on Feb. 26, the plan is for him to move into Blount-Baker’s current office space when it is free, Hall said.
Blount-Baker has put aside money from her budget to help with the costs to renovate the area of the jail that will house her office, Hall said.
Though an architect to design the renovation has yet to be hired, Hall estimates total costs for the renovation to be about $500,000.
Using the jail for storage and moving rented county offices should save the county about $60,000 a year, Hall said. That means the county could recoup costs for renovation in less than five years, he said.
Renovation construction will take about a year from the time the old jail is vacated, Hall said. Completion of the new detention center is set for this fall.
Hall plans to let bids for an architect in June, when a timeline on completion of the new jail is more solidified, he said. He hopes to bring a design proposal before the Crawford County Quorum Court in August or September, he said.
Gilstrap’s goal, he said, is to have the renovation plans for the old jail ready as soon as it is vacated.
"My hope is that renovations can start immediately," Gilstrap said.