While residents of the central Kenai Peninsula mull the pros and cons of a new private prison plan, Seward residents praise the positive effects of the correctional facility in their community.
Seward's Spring Creek Correc-tional Center is a maximum-security, state-operated adult correctional institution. The facility can house more than 500 male inmates and employs more than 200 staff.
Spring Creek is largely made up of "hard core" Alaska felons, those sentenced for violent crimes such as murder, who will likely spend the rest of their lives in prison. It also houses inmates serving three to 10 years for less violent crimes.
Built by Samwhan America Inc. in 1988, this is the state's newest correctional facility. The property and building are owned by the city of Seward and leased to the state Department of Corrections through a lease-purchase agreement.
Don Cripps, who was Seward's mayor in the mid-1980s, said many public meetings were held before construction of the $44.7 million prison project began.
He cited two main concerns among residents -- the quality of persons moving to Seward to be closer to inmates, and the possibility of breakouts.
According to Cripps, a majority favored the prison.
The prison has had an overall positive impact on the city, but it was not what residents were expecting, the former mayor said.
"There hasn't been the great influx of permanent residents that we initially hoped for," he said.
According to Spring Creek Superintendent Garland Armstrong, approximately 60 percent of the staff live locally. The remaining staff commute from Kenai, Soldotna and the Anchorage bowl.
Cripps said even though the surge of home ownership did not live up to the exceptions of most, the staff who relocated to Seward have benefited the area.
"The prison has brought people to town that play an active part in the community," he said.
Sally Wakefield, owner of Legacy Realty, agreed.
She said the professional attitude of the Spring Creek staff has been positive for the area.
"They are just an asset," she said, adding that those who live in Seward have taken an active role and have become involved in the community.
Wakefield said staff who are not permanent residents often stay in rental apartments that she manages. An average 800-square-foot apartment rents for $650 a month.
"They are always looking," she said.
Wakefield said she has rented to some inmates' families who have relocated, but not a lot.
Aside from rentals, she has sold property to Spring Creek staff and views the prison as beneficial.
"I would say it has had a very positive economic impact," she said.
Economic impacts are not the only issues surrounding the prison.
Malcolm Fleming, principal of Seward Junior-Senior High School said via e-mail that the school benefited by relocation of staff and their families to Seward.
"My feeling is that the prison had an impact on our school population from the prison employees," Fleming said. "Inmates' families do not seem to be an impact, but they don't advertise their connection, and we rarely know."
He said the school population grew in the early-1990s, but he is not certain it was due to Spring Creek.
The city has profited from other aspects of the prison, Louis Bencardino said, including a new hospital.
Bencardino, who was Seward's police chief during the mid-1980s, said he supported the prison because he thought it would develop the community and bring in taxes.
"We were mainly after permanent jobs," he said.
An increase in residents meant increased need for a hospital. And, Bencardino said, patients with medical benefits that pay for services is an issue of high importance.
"When you're in a small community, a hospital is a big thing to keep going," he said.
With the growing population and the use of the hospital by inmates, the city was able to obtain funds for Providence Seward Medical Center, which was built in 1996.
An issue of concern to area residents was prisoners being released in Seward, Bencardino said.
But the Department of Corrections eased that concern by letting the community know inmates would be returned to where they came from.
In the beginning, only 10 to 15 percent of the staff lived locally, he said, but today that amount has grown substantially.
The newcomers have built houses, paid taxes and contributed to the the city.
"That has been a good thing for the community," Bencardino said.
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