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Hammock with Alabama League of Municipalities president and Guntersville mayor Leigh Hammock

Mayor comments on prison possibility

By Michael Butler

Tallassee mayor Johnny Hammock spoke on WTLS on Thursday morning addressing concerns about a mega-prison that could be built just outside of the city limits on Rifle Range Road.

"I'd like to clear the air on some things," Hammock said. "When all this stuff with the prison started, I was new to my role as mayor and superintendent of utilities. If I could go back and do it all over, I'd be more inquisitive about the whole process."

Hammock was notified a little more than a month after taking office by the Elmore County Economic Development Authority's Leisa Finley, who was then serving as executive director.

"There are certain things that I'm not allowed to talk about with the public. Economic development sometimes is one of these examples. The director called me and asked if we had 216 plus acres."

After some checking, Hammock found that the Tallassee Industrial Development Board did not have a single parcel with that much acreage.

"I told them happy hunting. Several months went by and I got another phone call. They had located a piece of property outside of the city limits on Rifle Range that was for sale and falls into the Tallassee utility district.

"For several months I dealt with the executive director as the go between. I asked, 'What is this?' She said, 'Would you like to meet the company?' So we met at a restaurant in Montgomery. They said they were with CoreCivic."

CoreCivic is a nationwide company providing corrections and detention management services.

"They said that the State of Alabama would be sending out requests for proposals to build prisons and lease back to the state to staff them with their Department of Corrections workers."

At that point, it was the first time the a proposed prison was revealed to Hammock.

"I was floored. I'm expecting aerospace. They're telling me 600-800 jobs. The initial shock was kind of hard to swallow - a prison. I went home that night and did some deep soul searching. I knew a lot of the grants that we go after come through the state office. People might judge me for this, but I'm not going to rock the boat. If somebody's working for the governor's office, I'm not going to be difficult. I'm going to give them the information they need."

Hammock said there are proposed sites throughout the state.

"I know of three. There are two in Elmore County; the one over by Draper Prison and the one on Rifle Range Road. There's one down by Atmore. I was told that we were a secondary site (and) that Draper was primary."

Then, Hammock was asked to visit a facility like the one that could come to Elmore County.

"I wanted to be prepared if it comes here. I like to be proactive not reactive. They couldn't find one to match anywhere within driving distance. The nearest ones were in Arizona. ECEDA paid for all of the hotel rooms. On that trip, altogether was a little over $10,000. We've had to meet some more along the way. I added it all up, just to be transparent, we're looking at $16,000."

Those dollars did come from the city's coffers.

"A lot of people are probably going to bash me about using taxpayer money, but the grant world and economic development world is very complicated. It's not checkers, it's chess. You've got to be ready to play the game. I'm not saying I'm the best player, but at least I'm playing it.

"Some people might say that's a lot of money. It is a lot of money. You've got to think how I'm thinking. I'm thinking I'm going to have a design of infrastructure for this site. This might be our next big industrial site because we're running out of room."

It is expected that decisions on the the prison sites will be made by the end of the current state legislative session, Hammock noted.

"I'm in a holding pattern. It's out of the city limits. It's out of our zoning. It's really out of my control."

Much of the sentiment in the community has been negative towards a prison, but Hammock said to those concerned about being a "prison town" that there are positive aspects.

"What are we known for now? The Hotel Talisi that burned? Mount Vernon Mills that closed and burned? The landfill right outside our city limits? Is Oak Grove known as a prison town? Is Slapout a prison town? Is Wetumpka a prison town? The only might be Atmore, because of death row.

"I did some research on prison impacts. In my opinion this would be an economic impact significant to our area. You're talking about construction of a $600 million facility over 18 months. This is going to be 3,964 inmates that mostly are medical."

The prison would be a maximum security facility.

"It has to be maximum. You're going to have all levels there. They decide how they're separated."

Hammock estimates about $700,000 coming into the city from water, sewer and gas sales if the prison is built. He would also like to look at annexation to benefit from propety taxes and increasing Tallassee's population count.

And what are Hammock's biggest concerns about a prison.

"The initial fear," he said. "Personally - losing my job. People are already using this against me to tarnish my name. I said from day one I wanted to do what's best for the next generation and not the next election. I personally feel that this would be a benefit. The pros outweigh the cons."