Berlin prison project gets the green light

What’s being described as the second-largest construction project in New Hampshire history has gotten the green light from the federal government.

U.S. Senator Judd Gregg’s announced on Jan. 30 that a $154.5 million federal prison will be constructed in Berlin — a project city officials and businesspeople have over the years been lobbying hard for.

The project — expected to be second only in size to the Seabrook nuclear plant construction project — will “produce a huge economic benefit for the communities of the North Country and will result in many new jobs for the region,” the senator said.

Appearing with Gregg at the press conference at Berlin City Hall were Harley Lappin, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Gov. Craig Benson, Mayor Robert Danderson and state Sen. John Gallus, R-Berlin, among other local officials.

Using his position on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, Gregg put a $154.5 million appropriation specifically for construction of a 1,150-bed prison in Berlin in the federal budget bill that President Bush signed into law toward the end of January.

The prison would be twice the size of the state prison that opened in 2000 in Berlin at a cost of $30 million.

“This is really important to the economic well-being of Coos County and surrounding areas,” said Gallus, who called the project “a real shot in the arm for Berlin.”

Gallus said, “It’s sad to say that prisons are sort of a growth industry, but they have a stabilizing effect. The state prison has been a real godsend for us.”

In November 2001, Berlin voters rejected the federal prison idea in a non-binding referendum, 1,108-1,018. But in the months that followed, residents Tom Boutin and Paul Cusson gathered enough signatures for another vote, and it passed by almost 2-1, Danderson said.

“Give all the credit to Senator Gregg. Without him, it wouldn’t have happened,” Mayor Danderson said of the senator’s advice and help in shepherding the project through federal obstacles. Gregg is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees funding for the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons.

The city submitted a formal application to the Bureau of Prisons late last summer. The application identified three potential location including one near the present medium-security state prison.

Bureau officials have reviewed the application and examined the sites. They also held two public informational meetings last fall. The city has been waiting for the bureau to decide whether to go forward with an environmental impact study, process that’s expected to take about 18 months.

Gregg said $20 million has already been set aside for the environmental study and the necessary studies.

The prison — which would have an operating budget of about $25 million — would employ 300 to 400 people. Forty percent of those hired would be experienced staff while the remaining 60 percent would be new.

According to Danderson, construction of the prison would create a boom for the region. He said the $154.5 million appropriation includes $12 million for needed infrastructure work and said he hopes the project will help the city solve its dilapidated housing problem.

A study conducted for the Androscoggin Valley Economic Recovery Corp. by economist Richard Gsottschneider said a federal prison would have an overall positive economic impact on the city and surrounding communities.

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