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County to narrow potential jail sites

(Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette) Commissioners Gretchen Janssen and Roy Britz discuss potential sites for a new justice center complex in Houghton during Wednesday’s county board meeting.

HOUGHTON — The Houghton County Board tabled a proposal to develop a jail design and cost estimate so the county can narrow down potential sites.

At the board’s meeting Wednesday, Administrator Eric Forsberg said before the December board meeting, the county would identify a potential property and ask the seller for a one-year option as the county evaluates its next steps.

Following a recommendation from the county’s jail task force, in October the board narrowed its considerations to county-owned land on Dodge Street across from the courthouse or on some other parcel of land within the city. For logistical reasons, the county wants to keep the jail near the sheriff’s office, which must be located in the county seat.

“Across the street, the design is going to be different than if it’s going to be on a 5-acre parcel,” said Commissioner Gretchen Janssen, relaying a conversation with Karin Cooper of U.P. Engineers & Architects.

The task force called for a 110-bed jail, district court and sheriff’s office. Depending on the size of the lot for a new complex somewhere else in Houghton, it could include space for a new courthouse somewhere down the line, task force members said.

U.P. Engineers & Architects had submitted an offer of $38,000 for services, plus expenses estimated ta less than $2,000. The work would include visits to potential sites as well as holding a design workshop in Houghton to explore the needs for the new facility.

UPEA would work with the design firm BKV Group on the design workshop and the development of a floor plan for the facility, according to its proposal. BKV is also working with Alpena and Ingham counties on their new jail complexes.

Mill Creek North would also provide cost estimates, and review the construction and site development, according to the proposal. Mill Creek had previously helped UPEA develop estimates used in decision making by the jail task force.

Commissioners Janssen and Roy Britz reported to the board on a meeting with City Manager Eric Waara, Planning Commission Chair Tom Merz, Undersheriff Kevin Coppo, and Karin Cooper of UPEA.

They discussed several parcels on Paradise Road, including one straddling the border of Houghton and Portage Township. The latter one had about a 40-foot elevation drop, Britz said. Another location was near Sharon Avenue and Evergreen Drive. Coppo had been concerned about police cars getting in and out of that location, Britz said.

Britz said he was setting up a meeting with the police department and Houghton-Portage Township School District to discuss any issues with the Paradise Road location, due to its proximity to the middle and high school.

Britz said Portage Township Supervisor Bruce Peterson indicated he would be willing to work either the county and the city on the search for a location.

There would not be an opportunity with co-locating with the city on a new complex housing a justice center and city offices, Britz said. Houghton is looking at moving its city center to another location downtown.

The board may also take some cues from Delta County’s successful campaign for a jail. In speaking with the county, Janssen learned of a citizen group that had worked with the county to get the word out about the campaign, including passing out flyers at high school sports games.

“I think it really will take a group of concerned citizens who can communicate with the voters, maybe not only to educate, if we come up with a plan, but if we are going to take our time – which I think we should – maybe get some buy-in to a few ideas and see what has the best chance of passing,” she said.

Planning Commission member Evan McDonald said the commission could be a resource to the board in public outreach. If voters are presented with an option without having had a chance to weigh in on what they want beforehand, they may vote it down, he said.

“I feel if the county makes a major investment in a particular design approach at this point, you’re going to be invested in that, it’s going to be more likely you’re going to want to stick with that as what ends up being proposed to the voter,” he said. “And if there isn’t more choice in this overall process, the voters might reject it.”

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