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Mental health center turned prison restores jobs

Michigan State Roundup

July 1, 1995

Mental health center turned prison restores jobs

With the completed conversion of the town's former mental health facility to a correctional facility this fall, Newberry aims to punch up its economy.

The Newberry Regional Mental Health Center was the main employer in the small Upper Peninsula (U.P.) community of 1,850 people. When the hospital closed in 1992, "it had devastating side effects for the community, especially the business community. In 1994 the community bottomed out," says Newberry Mayor Bob Cameron.

The loss of 300 jobs hit Newberry doubly hard as an estimated 15 other businesses were forced to close with the decline in customer base. The population of both Newberry and of Luce County, in the northeastern portion of the U.P., has been on a downswing since the 1960s.

Local officials tried without luck to interest the private sector in using the mental health facility, so when the state announced plans for the correctional facility the community was receptive. Cameron indicates that while city officials knew what devastation the mental health facility closing would cause, it took residents a while to realize the full impact and led to the "overwhelming support for the prison in the area."

With the opening of the Newberry Correctional Facility this November, local officials are optimistic that the worst is over. Until that time, work continues as buildings on the 30-acre site are remodeled and the anticipated 270 staff are hired and trained for the 800-inmate medium security facility.

The prison will operate on an budget of $19 million, with an annual payroll of $13 million. Training of prison employees has begun and with an average salary of between $10 and $16 per hour, based on experience, correctional officer jobs are highly sought after. As with the state jobs at the mental facility, prison employees will have good salaries and benefits, not always the case in other local industries, such as logging, Cameron says.

The community also anticipates growth in businesses that provide services to the prison and to its employees. And those new jobs are creating a housing shortage, according to Cameron. As of July, there were 90 permits issued for new residential and commercial construction. The influx of prison workers has also led to a seller's market in existing city housing.

While the U.P. may be best known for tourism, the timber industry and mining, it has become home to several prisons in the past decades. With the addition of the Newberry Correctional Facility, the U.P. will have 13 prisons. The first facility converted was in the 1970s when the Kincheloe Air Force Base was turned into a prison. Although the U.P. is home to only about 3 percent of Michigan's total population, it houses about 20 percent of the state's estimated 7,400 inmates.

Diane Wells