KEVIN LEININGER: $5 million work-release relocation could pave way for bigger, better changes for Allen County

Sheriff Dave Gladieux, left, and program Director Michael Biltz stand outside the county's current work-release center at 12103 Lima Road. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
The former state juvenile facility on Venture Lane has been vacant for years and was purchased by the county in 2016. (File photo by Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel.com)
Kevin Leininger

The proposed $5 million upgrade of a former state juvenile correctional facility could reduce overcrowding in the Allen County Jail and begin the long-anticipated process of preparing 135 acres of prime publicly-owned real estate for sale and redevelopment.

The Allen County Council is expected to begin that long but sensible and potentially lucrative process Thursday by providing the money needed to move Sheriff Dave Gladieux’s work-release program from a dilapidated building on the Byron Health Center campus on Lima Road into the defunct 18-year-old state jail at 7117 Venture Lane. The county paid $1.3 million for the property two years ago, and the $5 million will be used to prepare the facility to securely house male and female adult offenders when they are not working.

For Gladieux and program Director Michael Biltz, the move is overdue. As Biltz noted, the current century-old building has an inadequate electrical system, a problematic heating system, major roof issues and poses security challenges — not to mention the falling plaster, peeling paint and lack of access for the disabled.

But the relocation won’t be about aesthetics or even comfort. There are plenty of practical benefits, starting with the fact that the new facility’s capacity will more than double the 103 people the current building can hold. That’s vital, Gladieux said, because as of last week the jail in downtown Fort Wayne held 747 prisoners, or six above capacity.

The opioid epidemic is partly to blame, but so is a law passed by the Indiana Legislature four years ago that required some felons to serve time locally instead of in state prisons. That law accounts for 121 jail prisoners right now, and a larger work-release center will provide the pressure valve that will help keep the jail below capacity and delay the costly but probably inevitable process of jail expansion. The larger facility also could accept up to 50 people who could be supervised by the county’s Community Corrections home-detention program if they have a place to stay.

All of which means the pieces of the puzzle I first wrote about last month are beginning to fall into place. The Byron Health Center is operated by Recovery Health Center but sits on county-owned land at 12101 Lima Road, but the county and developer Barry Sturges are preparing a plan to offer the site for redevelopment. That means Byron is also likely to move, which is why Recovery recently made an offer on 16 acres at Lake Avenue and Beacon Street.

A sale could net the county millions, potentially paying for the Venture Lane renovation. But the the facility’s ability to accommodate some Community Corrections participants hints at another piece of the puzzle: The city wants to buy the current Community Corrections facility on Superior Street for inclusion in its riverfront development program, and that could provide funds for relocation as well.

“Some day somebody is going to show up and tell us we need to make (Byron Health Center) compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Gladieux said. “But I see no purpose dumping money into it.” Precisely. A move by Byron would do more than provide its patients with a much-needed new facility; it would provide the money needed to improve various county facilities in a well-planned, comprehensive way.

But remember that line from the movie Field of Dreams? “Build it and they will come” applies to jails as well as baseball. As a way to combat opioid abuse, which affects an estimated 40,000 people in Allen County alone and has prompted lawsuits by the county and city against manufacturers and distributors, Gladieux would like to see mandatory jail sentences as a way to ensure treatment and prevent larger problems later.

Should that ever happen, he said, the jail’s unfinished fourth floor would have to be made ready at a cost that has been estimated at $2 million. But thanks to the process that is likely to begin this week, the county could have room for such a program, and maybe even some cash from a big land deal to help pay for it.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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