For seven years, the Penco Power Products dealership, located along U.S. Highway 93 on Kalispell’s south end, has sold Yamaha and KTM motorcycles, ATVs and accessories, and business has been good. On a recent weekday afternoon, the inside of the store was crammed with gleaming dirt bikes and chrome-laden cruiser motorcycles. Customers made their way past walls lined with high-end helmets and leathers to the busy service desk at the back of the store.
But across a row of hedges and just a few feet north of the dealership, a currently vacant office building could soon be the site of a new prerelease center, a prospect that has the business community of the city’s south end up in arms with fears that their property values will drop, the safety of their customers and employees could be compromised, and the southern entrance to Kalispell will no longer be as inviting or attractive.
“In my mind, the city council is not doing what is in the best interests of south Kalispell or the city,” Vaugh Penrod, the Penco dealership’s co-owner, said. “I just don’t think that’s good planning.”
Prerelease centers are designed to help convicted offenders navigate the transition from prison back to their communities by allowing them to finish out their sentences working independently while staying in a controlled facility that offers counseling, education and job training. Operated by non-profit corporations under contract from the state Department of Corrections, prerelease centers reside in six of Montana’s largest cities. While Flathead is the fourth largest county contributor to the state’s prison systems, no prerelease centers currently exist in Northwest Montana – which is why the 2007 Legislature set aside funds to locate one here.
For about a year a committee has been studying locations for a prerelease center in Kalispell and in December the state awarded a contract to build the 40-bed facility to Butte-based Community, Counseling and Correctional Services, Inc (CCCS). But it wasn’t until CCCS chose the location at 2282 U.S. 93 South that opposition to the center began to materialize in force.
Following a February public hearing at which the proposed location for the prerelease center drew a mixed response, the Kalispell Planning Board voted, 6-1, to issue a conditional use permit allowing the center there at its March 10 meeting, despite the submission of a petition signed by 146 people in opposition, along with 10 letters and the testimony of five people opposed.
The Kalispell City Council held a work session March 30 to consider granting a zoning change and issuing a permit for the prerelease center, which it is scheduled to vote upon at its April 6 meeting.
At the city council meeting last week, Penrod and a handful of other residents who work or own property along the south Kalispell corridor reiterated a list of reasons why the proposed location was unsuitable, including the devaluation of surrounding properties, impact on future growth there, the proximity for inmates to bars and casinos, the ability of inmates walking away from the center to easily escape via the adjacent city airport or highway, and the excessive noise for inmates trying to sleep next to a power sports sales and repair business.
Penrod added that he felt as if the public wasn’t made aware of the facility’s location until it had already been decided.
“It will devalue what we have all worked for; it will create hurdles for us in the future to do business,” Penrod said. “I do not think just because it’s got to go someplace that it should be plopped there at the expense of our livelihoods.”
But the dilemma facing city officials is that the prerelease center does, in fact, have to go somewhere. Nearly all of the individuals from the Flathead in the prison system will return home after serving their sentence – often to be with their families – so to have those offenders find jobs and get back on their feet in other communities where prerelease centers are located makes little sense.
“If we have a prerelease center, they come back here for six months and have a chance to establish themselves,” Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset told the council. “The pattern is a lot more positive than completely cutting their ties in Bozeman, Great Falls, wherever that might be, and then sending them back here.”
And the options on where such a facility can go are few, given requirements that it be located a minimum distance from schools and away from residential areas, yet close to public transportation, emergency services, and along the city’s water and sewer lines.
Mike Thatcher, the administrator for CCCS, said his firm looked at many other locations and where they selected was both the cheapest and best able to meet the center’s needs. He also touted the benefits of the prerelease center, pointing out that the center will create more then 20 full-time jobs, and any of the inmates who can’t find work will spend their days doing community service. While the facility will be tax-exempt, CCCS will pay the city what local taxes it would owe.
A committee with local law enforcement leaders would also have to sign off on every offender allowed to enter a prerelease center here.
“Our motive wasn’t to come to Kalispell and create acrimony and division within your community,” Thatcher said. “Sometimes there is misinformation and sometimes there are misperceptions of what a facility is.”
Thatcher and city officials noted that in other Montana communities surrounding property values were not affected, and in locations like Missoula, development closed in around the existing prerelease center.
“You look at the development around these communities and you don’t see a decline,” City Planning Director Tom told the council. “After six months when the furor settles down, or the hubbub, the reality is it’s a pretty quiet, benign use.”
As for the city council, most spoke in support of the proposed location for the prerelease center, though two members were absent. Only Councilman Tim Kluesner made clear his opposition to putting the facility in the ward he represents.
“I don’t know why Kalispell was chosen – why not Columbia Falls? Why not Whitefish? Why not Evergreen?” Kluesner said. “Why do we get stuck in the middle of this and become a savior for the county?”
The council must decide on the location at its next meeting. If it turns down the proposed location, CCCS will continue searching for someplace else. But the question, given the burden the Flathead places on the state prison system, is no longer if the prerelease center is coming to Kalispell. It’s a question of where.
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