MILO, Maine — Although Governor-elect Paul LePage spent his day Wednesday shaking hands and answering telephone calls from well-wishers, he hasn’t forgotten a campaign promise to help the town of Milo, his spokesman said.
This financially strapped community created a spark of economic development on its own, but town officials say the state extinguished it before it could ignite.
For at least two years, the officials say, they have been working to persuade the Tennessee-based Corrections Corp. of America, or CCA, to build a prison in the town’s industrial park.
Hearing about those efforts, LePage said last weekend, that if elected, he would reach out to both Milo and CCA to show them his administration will be supportive of bringing business and industry to Maine. The governor-elect plans to do just that, Dan Demeritt, LePage’s transition team communications director, said Wednesday.
CCA, which builds, manages and operates correctional and detention facilities on behalf of the federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Marshals Service, was interested in building a facility in the Northeast, and the Milo site was appealing enough for the company to send in an engineering firm to inspect it in July 2008.
Armed with that interest and the possible creation of up to 300 jobs, the town reached out to state officials for support, but no one reached back, according to Milo Town Manager Jeff Gahagan.
“We had just hoped for some help and some better response from Augusta, but we didn’t get that,” Gahagan said recently. “We were hopeful that if we had the support of the state, then we really, really had a chance at something big here for Maine and for Piscataquis County.”
An expression of state interest is apparently all it took for Natchez, Miss., to play host to a new CCA facility, according to Gahagan. Natchez officials told Gahagan in a telephone call in February 2009 that once the governor of Mississippi and other state officials became involved, things moved rapidly. Within 16 months to two years, they had a facility up and running, he said.
Gahagan and Milo resident Fred Trask, a member of the town’s industrial committee who first approached CCA, said that before the company committed to a Maine location, it needed to know that it had the state’s support.
“We really never made it to that point,” he said.
Louise Grant, a CCA spokeswoman, said Monday the company continually looks for potential sites for prisons or detention centers across the nation.
“At this time, there is just not an immediate demand to build in Maine,” she said.
Because she was not involved in discussions among Milo, state and CCA officials, Grant could not say if the company’s decision was a result of Maine’s jail consolidation effort or a lack of state support.
Gahagan said he discussed the proposal after Milo’s 2009 arson fire with Gov. John Baldacci, who was noncommittal, and that he also reached out to both Senate President Libby Mitchell and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. In addition, he, Trask and a CCA official met in June 2009 in Augusta to discuss the proposal with officials from the Department of Corrections, the Department of Economic and Community Development and the governor’s office.
“We had a couple of meetings in Augusta, and they were just not interested in pursing it any further,” Trask said.
The issue was never taken seriously enough to be presented to the Legislature.
David Farmer, the governor’s spokesman, said Monday that CCA told us “straight out that unless we were willing, as a state, to send prisoners to their institutions or at least let them compete, they would not build in Maine because they needed that commitment that we would be partners in that.” There is a Maine law that forbids state prisoners from being housed in a for-profit prison either inside or outside the state, he noted.
Baldacci had proposed legislation in the biennial budgets for 2008-2009 and 2010-2011 that would have allowed the state to house prisoners at out-of-state, private prisons as a way to reduce prison costs, Farmer said, but the proposals were defeated in the Legislature.
Without that commitment from Maine, “CCA said that they weren’t willing to come into the state and make that investment,” Farmer said.
Sen. Stanley Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said his committee has never been approached by Milo officials.
“We never had a proposal to build a prison in Milo,” he said. He said there have been discussions about the issue for years “but they haven’t gone anywhere.”
“It seems to me that LePage is trying to create minimum-wage jobs. The private prisons are not like the state prisons,” Gerzofsky said. The state’s prisons don’t pay that great a wage, but guards at private prisons make even less, he said. “Developing minimum-wage jobs I don’t think is a great job creator.”
“Economic development is economic development,” Gahagan said, no matter how small or large a project. CCA could have helped the town in a number of ways, from sewer and water, to jobs, housing and taxes, he noted. Gahagan added that the owners of a biomass facility were interested in building in the industrial park to service the prison.
Trask said the town extended the red carpet to CCA and even offered it the land. “They wouldn’t have expended the money to hire a company to come up and look at it if they weren’t interested,” he said. “There was no other business knocking on the state’s door.”
“These people were out looking for a place to go in the Northeast and it was just a lucky chance that they had any interest in Milo,” Trask added. “It was so close and then when it got to Augusta, it just stopped.”