South Dakota is finally moving forward on the long overdue replacement of its men’s penitentiary near downtown Sioux Falls. It announced a new site and a timeline for the move. However, the process for selecting a replacement site has raised questions and concerns from the public.

Downtown Sioux Falls Has Changed

In recent decades, our downtown has grown into a popular place to live, work and play. Inevitably, some features of historical downtown no longer seem appropriate there. Downtown would be better off today if we no longer had a slaughterhouse, penitentiary and railroad switching yard nearby. We usually don’t bring up those legacy features of our city center when we brag about it.

Sioux Falls Welcomed the Penitentiary

When the decision was made in the mid to late 19th century to create a university in the Dakota Territory, community promoter Richard Pettigrew wished it could be in Sioux Falls. But as a political realist he recognized that it would be located near the then population center in the southeast corner of the territory. So, he worked on getting Sioux Falls the next best alternative.

Richard Pettigrew

He wanted the penitentiary in Sioux Falls to provide stable jobs in the community. It worked. But over a century later, the facility has aged and the need for a new location has been evident for a long time.

Why Surprise the Public?

Earlier this year, the state announced that it would build a new penitentiary on farmland it owns in Lincoln County. The announcement apparently surprised the public, especially those owning property in the area of the site as well as public officials.

If I had been advising the state on their site selection process, I would have recommended a transparent and open-minded approach. The state could have announced its intention to replace the penitentiary, publicly shared the criteria for evaluating potential sites, and invited proposals from communities across the state.

Instead, the state made its pick with no advance notice, and so far, minimal information has been released. Both the site and the process used to pick it have raised concerns. Many neighbors, including local officials, have expressed an interest in learning more. And now some legislators have started asking questions.

Some Communities May Want the Penitentiary

There may be communities along the I29 corridor or within an hour of Sioux Falls on I90 that would enthusiastically welcome the facility, just as Sioux Falls and Richard Pettigrew did decades ago. It offers the prospect of stable government jobs for the next century, which is a potentially enticing opportunity for areas dealing with stagnant or declining populations.

The Lincoln County Site is Valuable

The state has picked a nice piece of farmland it owns in Lincoln County. It is a valuable state asset, characterized by its high-quality agricultural potential and its future prospects as a development site within the metro Sioux Falls area. Given the lack of information and the hardships this location might impose on neighbors, it is only natural that questions have been raised about whether there might be more suitable locations.

Another Alternative, Sell the Valuable Farmland

Selling the Lincoln County land could potentially generate significant revenue, possibly helping offset some of the costs of constructing the new facility. And while we’re at it, selling the old facility might also help defray costs of the new prison. The state has indicated they plan to keep the old building, but that may not be in the best interests of the state or the community.

Maybe there is a less valuable and less controversial location available. Or maybe this Lincoln County site is the best one available. It’s hard to know without more transparency.