The economic history of Bonne Terre is a familiar one, which has played out in many communities nationwide. Declining and on the verge of obscurity, the former lead mining town was in search of a miracle to reverse over a halfcentury of economic decline. Then the State of Missouri announced that it would provide economic salvation to the people of Bonne Terre by making the town home for the state's largest and costliest prison.
The hills were leveled, the valleys raised, and a dozen underground springs were diverted to transform a hay pasture into a prison the size of 50 city blocks. But today, over six years after the grand announcement that the prison would be built, the $168 million facility has no prisoners and no opening date. The town is in debt, and new businesses that had hoped to serve the prison's work force are nearly broke. The good folks of Bonne Terre are learning that pinning your hopes for economic prosperity on concentration camp economics has its pitfalls.
The same neo-liberal economics that brought the Bonne Terre prison into existence in the first place is also the cause for its delayed opening. The boom that turned to bust in Bonne Terre is part of an expansion, begun in the mid1990s with the national rise of the prison-industrial complex, that will nearly double the capacity of the Missouri Department of Corrections. Communities that once might have shunned prisons began competing for the economic benefits that could be reaped by warehousing humans. Now, as the economy weakens, even this bulwark of economic stability is being affected as the overbuilt prison systems come under the knife of legislative spending cuts. As a result, the Bonne Terre prison will remain closed because Missouri, facing a budget shortfall of $300 million, cannot afford the $12 million needed to equip it or the nearly $45 million required annually to run it.
Competing with several cities in the mid1990s, Bonne Terre agreed to purchase the land for a state prison and issued bonds to help pay for $14 million in improvementsa project nearly ten times the size of the town's annual budget. "We put in sewer lines and water lines and built roads; and business leaders in the community all geared up to either expand their businesses or open up," said City Manager Jeffrey Jeude. "Now we're paying back the loans on these improvements and we don't have any increase in revenue to do that."
Had the prison opened, it would have been the best economic news for Bonne Terre since the St. Joseph Lead Company stopped digging in the area in 1961. "A lot of business people had high hopes," said motel owner Jayne Bess. "We are very disappointed." Bess opened a 40room Super 8 Motel down the road from the prison, counting on prisoners' visitors and prison suppliers to fill the rooms. But Bess does well these days to fill even onethird of the motel.
The soonest the Bonne Terre prison could receive funding is July 2002, and even then it could be several months before it would open.
Source: Tulsa World.
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