New Downtown Jail Proposal Presented

After more than six months in the works, and with less than 60 days away from the special election, Smith County commissioners have once again changed their minds on the potential new jail site. Today, they made modifications to the downtown site, that would make it less expensive than the plan presented last week.

Originally, the jail was designed to be built between the railroad tracks and North Center Avenue and Line Street and Ferguson Streets. The proposal revealed today would make for a larger jail, that would be two stories instead of eight. This one runs from the railroad track to Beckham and from Line St. to Ferguson St. Today's announcement means more work to be done.

"This jail needs to be built downtown so what we've looked at is flipping the remote site to the downtown site at a reduced cost from what we originally started from," said Smith County Precinct 4 Commissioner Joann Hampton.

There were tears of joy in commissioner's court this morning after that statement from Commissioner Hampton. While no official decision has been made to move the jail downtown, those who live in the neighborhood labeled as the remote location felt less threatened the jail would be heading their way. "It's a good decision for the county," said Benjamin Horn, who lives near the proposed, so-called remote site. "We have communities that still would be safe. We have properties that can be built for homes instead of for incarceration."

"The neighborhood has gotten together. We've had prayer meetings and really we've all been praying," said Martha Welch, who also lives near the proposed site.

Architects showed the commissioners court today what changes could be made to the downtown site to cut costs. The plan: a two-story jail instead of eight stories. They say that would make a difference in the cost of equipment and material needed.

Commissioners feel the presentation was a huge step forward. "This is more of what I had wanted to see. I had questions about why we had such differences between the non-downtown site and the downtown site. I had questions about the overall price," said Smith County Precinct 2 County Commissioner David Stein.

"We've clearly demonstrated as a court that we need to move forward in this. The costs are escalating at $500,000 to $600,000 per month for every month that we wait so it's imperative that we move forward with this process," said Smith County Judge Becky Dempsey.

There are still many unknowns with the project including if the land needed is available. Commissioners hope to get a better idea on the project Thursday when they hear once again from the architects. Those architects are going to try to come up with a guaranteed maximum price by then. Also, commissioners expect the new downtown site to take 24 months to build, instead of the 30 months originally planned.

Oralia Ortega reporting,