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Mayor Giarrante says deal in the works for old Joliet prison

The redevelopment Old Joliet PrisCollins Street Joliet has been talked about many times but nothing has materialized. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times

The redevelopment of the Old Joliet Prison on Collins Street in Joliet has been talked about many times, but nothing has materialized. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 22, 2013 11:55AM

The city is talking with a prospective developer for the old Joliet prison on Collins Street.

Mayor Thomas Giarrante described the potential deal as “preliminary.” But he was confident enough in the prospect to announce it during his State of the City address Wednesday.

“We have someone who is very interested in that prison,” he said. “He has some great ideas. But first we need the state of Illinois to turn that property over to us so we can work with that person.”

Giarrante would not elaborate on the prospective development later when asked for details. But the city would have to have some confidence in the prospect if it is willing to take over the aging prison from the state.

The mayor said Joliet would not take the prison wihout an agreement in place with the developer.

The city for several years has been looking for a developer willing to take the prison and redevelop it for a bed and breakfast, shopping area, or tourism attraction that would capitalize on public interest in the historic structure.

At issue for the city is the risk of taking over a 19th Century prison and then being left with the costs of maintaining it. The state closed the Joliet Correctional Center in 2002, and it has been deteriorating since then.

The city wants a developer ready to take ownership of the prison, renovate it, and put it to new use, said James Haller, director of community and economic development for Joliet.

“We’ve made overtures to get the property,” Haller said. “The problem we have is we don’t have the money to maintain it right now.”

Haller said the state has not yet determined what it will do with the prison. The state could put it up for sale itself, he said. Or, it could transfer ownership to Joliet, an arrangement the city is trying to work out by lining up a private developer.

The prison was built in 1858. Its limestone walls and guard towers give it an iconic look that has been used for settings in movies and TV shows. The city set up a visitors’ site in the parking lot with story boards telling the history of the prison to accommodate travelers who stop to see the prison during trips through Joliet.

A consultant’s study done for the city determined that the prison has possibilities for redevelopment. Similar renovation projects have been done at other old prisons. But the Joliet prison also is in danger of deteriorating to the point of no repair, the study reported, because little if any money is being spent on upkeep.

“Suffice it to say everyone is in agreement that the darn place is deteriorating fast,” Haller said. “Nobody wants to lose this asset. It’s amazing to me, if you spend any amount of time out there, the number of people who stop to read the story boards, walk around the property and take pictures.”

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