Tupper Lake prison plan fuels Adirondack debate Environmental concern, economic impact clash in mountainous region


TUPPER LAKE, N.Y. - The New York state Legislature decided last month to build a 750-cell, maximum-security prison on the outskirts of Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks.

But the proposed prison has touched off a fierce debate over the future of this mountainous region that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, worker against worker, sibling against sibling.

The fight has focused not just on Tupper Lake, but on the entire Adirondack Park, 6 million mostly pristine acres of public and private land that includes 4,000 lakes and ponds, the Hudson River source and the state's highest peaks. To critics, the verdant North Country has become overly dependent on the penitentiary business, whose latest growth spurt is being fueled by tougher prison sentences established by the Legislature in 1995.

Fifth prison in park

Tupper Lake would be the fifth state prison inside what is known as the blue line, the boundaries of the largest American park outside Alaska. If the counties bordering Adirondack Park are included, there are 14 prisons in the North Country, holding a total of nearly 15,000 inmates. But the critics contend that each new prison detracts from the natural beauty of the place, discouraging efforts to make the Adirondacks a more popular destination for tourists and nature lovers.

"This does not capitalize on the special qualities of the park," said Eric Siy, Adirondack project director for Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit group. "It diminishes those qualities."

But to supporters of the prison, including most of the region's elected officials and many business owners, such critics are out of touch with the hardscrabble reality of the Adirondacks. With double-digit unemployment rates during the long winters, a dying logging industry and downtowns that are pockmarked by vacant stores, the region needs the economic lift that prisons can provide, they say.

'What we can get'

"If your kids can't find a good job, they leave," said Robert Bierwirth, 49, who owns the local McDonald's. "That's why having a prison is held in such high regard. We'd rather have IBM. But realistically, a prison is what we can get."

Many business owners said news of the prison gave them newfound confidence in the local economy. With a $130 million price tag, the prison is expected to generate scores of local construction jobs. And when it is completed, possibly in 1999, it is expected to create more than 100 permanent jobs and pump $19 million each year into the economy.

One businessman, Peter Day, said he used to oppose the prison on the ground that it would hurt business at the Big Tupper Ski Area, which he owns. But he became a convert a few winters ago when he saw a dozen prison guards at his bar, buying drinks and lunch. They had rearranged their work schedules so they could ski midweek, when the lift lines were short - a flexibility that was not lost on Day.

"The Adirondacks have broken a lot of men," said Day, noting that the average prison guard earns $35,000 a year, well above the local median income of about $25,000. "It's remote. It's inhospitable in winter. There's nothing much here to make a living off of. We need all the help we can get."

The prison will be the state's first maximum-security penitentiary in nine years. Plans call for it to be built on a 100-acre tree farm in an area zoned for an industrial park. It will house as many as 1,500 prisoners, most of whom will be those deemed disciplinary problems and transferred from other prisons.

Its obstreperous inmates will be kept in 105-square-foot cells all day, minimizing contact with guards and other prisoners. Meals will be eaten in cells, and exercise time will be spent in tiny areas attached to each cell.

The prison will employ up to 367 workers, 223 of them guards. Under union rules, all of the guard jobs will be filled by transfers from other state prisons. Most of the remaining 110 to 140 support staff jobs will be filled locally.

Though a few environmental advocates are opposing the prison, others have withheld judgment, saying they might be willing to accept a prison in the park provided it meets all the region's tough environmental standards.

"This is a major facility that has aesthetic impacts, waste-water impacts, water-usage impacts," said Bernard Melewski, counsel to the Adirondack Council, a nonprofit group. "We're at the beginning of the process. This is no different from siting any other major industrial facility."

Residents who oppose the prison raise a host of other objections. Some say they fear breakouts. Others complain that "prison glow" will ruin their gloriously starry night skies. Or that prisoners' families will move to town. Or that taxes and electric rates will rise. Or that tourists will stay away.

Supporters say the prison will barely be noticed, because it will be in a forest, nearly two miles from the nearest main road. "Out of sight, out of mind," said Dean Lefebvre, supervisor of the Town of Altamont, which encompasses Tupper Lake.

Settled in the mid-1800s mainly by French Canadian trappers, the town has undergone a variety of makeovers. At the turn of the century, logging dominated its economy. By the 1950s, tourism was fueling a boom, and there were 39 bars and restaurants, more than a dozen hotels, four sawmills and a vibrant shopping district.

But the 1960s were the start of a steady slide. The train line shut down. Logging companies moved away and all but one of the mills closed. The population declined and the state became the largest employer, with about 700 workers at the Sunmount Developmental Disabilities Services Office. The Northland Hotel is now boarded up; the 330 Lodge is a burned-out hulk. Storefronts are vacant and traffic is thin.

Most business owners in town want the prison. "Some of that money has to trickle down here," said George Kallasy, owner of the Swiss Kitchen. Asked about opposition, he replied, "Some people would complain if Santa Claus gave out $10 bills."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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