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Shuttered Florida Prison Converted Into 'Empowerment Center' for Homeless

After Florida officials closed the Gainesville Correctional Institution (GCI) for good in March 2012, the state's Department of Corrections fought to keep the property and lobbied to use some of the space left behind for probation offices.

Instead, both the state and city elected to turn the page on the property's dreary past and remake it into a multipurpose shelter—dubbed an "empowerment center" by local officials—for Gainesville's homeless population.

In January 2014, the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry—which will oversee operations of the new shelter—began opening its doors to the public for tours and brainstorming sessions with taxpayers just two months after the Florida Cabinet voted to sell the former GCI site to Gainesville for $1.4 million.

"There is no denying what this facility used to be," city spokesman Bob Woods said, leading a tour through the shuttered prison’s dormitories and concrete buildings.

The property had to be pried from DOC by Gainesville officials even after the state designated the site as surplus. Now, Woods said, the properties —which includes 38 acres of land and 15 buildings—is on the verge of becoming a community asset providing hope and shelter.

After removing the high-security fencing and barbed wire from around the prison's perimeter, renovations budgeted at $1 million began in four buildings—one dormitory, the kitchen, library and laundry facilities—to feed the homeless and provide space to wash and store clothing. First-year operating costs are estimated to be around $300,000.

Potential long-term plans involve much more, including a medical clinic, job training, services for homeless veterans, an on-site garden, arts and cultural center, and space to house the Salvation Army's meal services and social programs.

"We've spent eight years in our community seeking a location for this center," City Commissioner Randy Wells said of the project, which is the heart of a city and county plan, unveiled in 2005, to end homelessness.

The GCI sale also included 126 acres of surrounding woodlands, which will now become nature trails for walking, jogging and bird-watching for Gainesville residents.

Once DOC lost its bid to turn some of GCI into probation offices, it sought to acquire land in an historic Gainesville neighborhood to build space for community supervision. But local opposition to that plan forced the city's planning board to deny DOC's application for the site.


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