Nearly two years after an explosion destroyed the Escambia County central booking and detention facility, officials are finally moving forward with building a new facility to replace it.
The April 2014 explosion killed two people, injured more than 180 and destroyed the jail facility on Leonard Street, north of downtown. Earlier this year, a grand jury concluded there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges in the incident.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials concluded last year that replacement of the jail was preferred over repair, which led to county officials pursuing sites where a new facility could be built.
Earlier this year, the Escambia County commission narrowed possible sites for the new jail to three locations along Palafox Street north of downtown, excluding the option of rebuilding near the current site. However, in a turn of events led by public opposition, last week county commissioners voted to rebuild a new facility near the location of the current site of the devastated facility. Commissioner Grover Robinson was the lone dissenter, favoring the other proposed locations on Palafox Street.
With the 4-1 vote Thursday night, much of the opposition to building at the current site stemmed from Robinson. During the meeting, he made a point that commissioners previously rejected the old jail site from the discussion for a host of reasons related to the property’s location. Among them, the site’s prevalent flooding issues and constrained size of the property.
In addition to voting to keep the new jail at the same location, commissioners voted to acquire the McDonald’s shopping center adjacent to the jail for an expanded 1,500 bed facility . The 14 acre shopping center property is appraised at $3 million, with the property owners asking $4 million. The property is by far the more expensive of all the presented options, but commissioners say rebuilding at the current site will allow the county to resolve stormwater issues surrounding the county complex and keep the sheriff’s office and jail facilities consolidated in one central location.
Outside consultants hired by Escambia County have said that with the acquisition of the shopping center property, up to 40 percent of the land will have to be used as a stormwater pond to mitigate flooding impacts in the flood-prone areas surrounding the jail facility.
As officials move forward with their timeline to rebuild a new jail by 2018, the county is paying nearly half a million dollars per month to house inmates in out-of-county detention facilities. Estimates to house inmates in other counties through 2018 amount to nearly $12 million. While officials hoped FEMA would also pay for these costs along with much of the cost of constructing a new facility, federal officials have said this is unlikely.
Estimates earlier this year put the cost of building a new jail at more than $160 million, with a 44-month construction period. With new plans to purchase extra property adjacent to the existing jail, those estimates will likely increase, according to county officials.
With the selection on the new location for the jail decided, officials hope to move forward with purchasing land required for the new facility in the coming months, complete designs and proceed with construction to meet a deadline for completion no later than 2018.