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New site: Houghton County looks at new jail location

Houghton County looks at new jail location

(Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette) Houghton County Commissioners Gretchen Janssen and Roy Britz present the results of their search for a new site for the county jail during Tuesday’s meeting. The board approved beginning negotiations for a two-year option to purchase a site off of Evergreen Street.

HOUGHTON — The Houghton County Board has picked a potential site for a new jail.

Tuesday night, the board voted to begin negotiating for a option to purchase five to seven acres off of Evergreen Street behind the former Sears building.

Commissioners Roy Britz and Gretchen Janssen have been conducting talks with owners of several properties over the past couple of months. The site would be large enough to accommodate the planned jail, district court and sheriff’s office, as well as a courthouse if the county ever decides to relocate, Britz said.

“That would be my preferred location,” he said.

On Monday, Britz spoke with the pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, which is adjacent to the property. He thought it could give the church opportunities to reach out to inmates, but said he would discuss it with the church’s board later this week, Britz said.

The privately-owned land is within Portage Township, but is part of Houghton through a Public Act 425 agreement, in which the township conditionally transferred the land to Houghton. The agreement is 25 years, but township representatives indicated they would support extending it, Britz said.

The county also met with City Manager Eric Waara last month to discuss a city-owned parcel on Portage Street. However, the council was not willing to part with the property, Janssen said.

The county has been looking for alternatives to its nearly 60-year-old jail for more than 20 years. Several proposals have been voted down, including a jail addition behind the courthouse that was narrowly defeated in 2018.

While the jail can be anywhere in the county, under state law the sheriff’s office and some court functions must be in the county seat. A county task force identifying alternative sites for the jail made two recommendations last summer: a site on county-owned land across from the courthouse on Dodge Street, and a site somewhere else within Houghton.

The Dodge Street parcel would not be large enough for a new courthouse, which the task force identified as a concern. It also poses problems for snow removal, Britz said.

Britz referenced a 2010 study on the courthouse showing the inadequate space and safety of two of the courts.

“I still think that going outside and creating a new jail and district court is the proper way to go, with enough property long-term for eventually looking at a new courthouse … I think if we stay here, we limit what future we’re going to have,” Britz said, with Janssen indicating her agreement.

Britz also backed the idea of slowing the county’s process down, taking cues from a successful effort for a jail millage in Delta County. Instead of the county-hosted meetings, some of which were sparsely attended, the county should go out to community groups to meet with them, he said.

“Doing it right is the way to go, and slowing it down to next year before bringing it to the public would be my recommendation,” he said.

However, Commissioner Glenn Anderson backed moving forward this year to maintain the project’s momentum. Holding it during the presidential election will also generate high turnout that will represent the county well, Anderson said.

“I’d rather err on doing it on the November ballot this year,” he said. “If that fails, we’ve got next year to try another.”

Vice Chairman Tom Tikkanen agreed with Anderson.

“One thing we’re all in agreement on is we’re living on borrowed time with our current facility, and I feel very strongly that we need to take strong action,” he said.

The Houghton County Planning Commission has offered to help with the effort to get a new jail and find out what the public wants. Planning Commission member Horst Schmidt said it was looking to conduct a survey similar to the one being conducted by the Copper Country Recycling Initiative.

“We want to make sure citizens are aware what the options are and be able to decide whether or not they want to follow any of these,” he said. “Hopefully by consulting with our citizens we’ll be able to have a successful outcome this time around.”

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