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Options explored for closed Westmoreland County prison

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A minor league baseball park, a commercial development or a drug treatment center are some of the potential uses in discussions for the closed state prison in Hempfield, according to state and Westmoreland County officials.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said the state Department of General Services has fielded inquiries about marketing the property, which was closed by the Department of Corrections on June 30.

“There are some bites,” Ward said. “There are some interested parties.”

The sprawling facility was built in 1969 as the Westmoreland County Prison, but the county thought it was too large and later sold it to the state.

Nearly 1,000 state inmates were transferred from the facility to a prison that opened recently in Centre County.

The state has set the value of the 123-acre Hempfield site at $1.2 million.

Ward questions whether the property should be used by a nonprofit corporation, such as a drug treatment center, that would be exempt from paying real estate taxes.

“It's a great piece of property. I don't want to see it unused, but I want to see it used as a taxpaying business,” Ward said. “I want to see it go on the tax rolls.”

Westmoreland County Commissioners Chuck Anderson and Tyler Courtney, along with Dirk Matson, the county's human services director, went to Harrisburg recently to discuss converting the former prison into a drug treatment center.

Such a facility would provide the additional in-patient beds and detoxification programs the county says are badly needed to combat a dramatic increase in heroin and prescription painkiller addiction, according to county, judicial and law enforcement officials.

Drug abuse has increased in the county by 355 percent since 2002, according to the Westmoreland County Drug Task Force.

Matson said the state agreed to allow drug treatment providers to tour the building to see if such a project is financially feasible.

Troy Thompson, spokesman for the Department of General Services, said the state does not have a specific use in mind for the former prison.

The cost of renovating the former prison will be a factor for any organization, Matson said.

“Can the prison be rehabilitated? Is it financially feasible to rehab the place as a drug treatment center?” Matson asked. “It may be cheaper to build.”

“There is interest in the county as a whole to have a (drug treatment) facility because the county needs a site,” said Jason Rigone, director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp., who would like the county, rather than the state, to market the property.

Until recently, Westmoreland County's Drug and Alcohol Commission limited which firms could provide drug treatment in the county.

But Matson said the county is seeking additional providers to open more treatment centers.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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