City officials in Sugar Land have been trying to get rid of the Central Prison Unit that sits in the middle of Fort Bend County for almost five years. Now, with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's prison population dropping slightly and the state's budget crunching tightly, the time may finally be right.
For the first time, state lawmakers are considering shuttering at least one prison unit, and the most likely option seems to be the Central Unit. The century-old facility sits near Sugar Land's airport, and local officials are anxious to see the property given over to development that could help bolster the tax base.
The Texas Tribune sat down last week with Sugar Land Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Dale Rudick to talk about the history of the prison and what local officials would prefer to do with the land where it sits.
A video and edited transcript of the interview are below:
TT: What's the history of the Central Prison Unit in Sugar Land?
Rudick: Well, the prison has been around for a very long time. It's one of the oldest — if not the oldest — state prisons in the entire state. From my understanding, it was [built] before 1910, so it's been over 100 years. And back then, of course, Fort Bend County's population was predominately rural and agricultural. Now fast forward to about 2006, and that's when City Council decided to go ahead and see what we could about maybe putting efforts toward relocating that prison to a better place ... that's not so populated, because there's been a huge amount of growth. Fort Bend County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the entire state, and nation, and now there's a lot of development that's around that prison. In fact, there were just thousands of acres that were devoted to this Central Prison Unit and the farming community for the Central Unit. And since then, the state has sold much of that property. So, therefore, now the only [thing] remaining is just the Central prison itself as more and more development has utilized that old prison property.
TT: What do city leaders view as a better use for that land?
Rudick: The Central Prison Unit, as it is now ... the airport runway traverses the two different parcels of the prison property. It is wholly contained within the city limits. The council has zoned it to accommodate a future business park and airport-related facilities. Our current Sugar Land business park is reaching its limit as far as [it's] almost full. So this is a great economic development tool. In 2007, we were successful in having the Legislature mandate the TDCJ, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, to perform a feasibility study. We worked with the TDCJ to go ahead and allow not just the standpoint from the prison, but how it works for economic development once this prison was developed into a business park. It actually showed there was quite a bit of gain for the local governments as well as the state with the closure of this prison and development for airport-related facilities and a business park. I think the numbers were somewhere upwards of maybe close to $1 million a year in revenue for local government to provide services to our residents, and close to $5 million, between $4 million and $5 million, to the state in enhanced revenue to their budget.
TT: What are some steps the city has taken since 2006 to get the prison closed?
Rudick: We've had an ongoing conversation with our local state leaders, as well as, you know, local elected officials and trying to include the TDCJ and working with them as closely as we could. We didn't want to catch them by surprise with what we were trying to do. They have a prison to run. But we want them to feel as though we are partners, in a way. After all, their prisoners are our residents. So we've been working very closely and talking with them on a regular basis. Brad Livingston, of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the executive director, has told us that out of the 112 prisons statewide this is one prison where you have the endorsement, for the most part, of all your state elected leaders in the area, as well as your locally elected leaders, to close the prison. A lot of communities want to keep the prisons open, because that is their economic development.
TT: Is this a case where the state's budget crisis is actually a bonus?
Rudick: It has obviously worked to our advantage. But we've also put the seeds in progress, where it didn't happen overnight and it wouldn't have happened, possibly, by itself.