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Missouri lawmakers give thumbs-down to plan to turn old prison into tourist site

by Staff

JEFFERSON CITY — A plan to transform what was once called the “bloodiest 47 acres in America” into a tourist attraction has been shelved under the latest budget proposal facing Missouri lawmakers.

Amid blowback from reluctant lawmakers, House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith nixed a $52.3 million earmark requested by Gov. Mike Parson’s administration to redevelop the abandoned Missouri State Penitentiary, which sits largely in decay about eight blocks from the state Capitol.

Smith, R-Carthage, said Monday the negative reaction from members of the budget committee contributed to the plan’s demise. During a hearing on the proposal, lawmakers called the idea “gruesome” because of the violence and death associated with the facility.

“I think it was beyond the level of comfort we had on the committee to preserve the history around the prison,” Smith said. “It’s a tricky thing to address. On one hand it’s part of our history. On the other we want to be respectful to everyone.”

The prison was built in 1834 on 142 acres along the Missouri River. It was the first prison west of the Mississippi River and stayed in operation until 2004.

In 1967, Time magazine named the prison the “bloodiest 47 acres in America” because of serious assaults on prisoners between 1963 and 1964.

The prison and its residents helped turn Jefferson City into a major manufacturing center. Companies that made clothing and shoes set up shop within the prison walls to take advantage of cheap inmate labor.

It also held its share of infamous inmates, including bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, boxer Charles “Sonny” Liston and James Earl Ray, who assassinated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Before it closed, the prison had seen more than 2,000 deaths, including 39 who died in the gas chamber.

The administration, with the backing of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, had sought to preserve significant parts of the crumbling facilities, with the first installment of $52.3 million coming in the next state budget. Another $40 million would be set aside in future budgets.

The first phase would upgrade three buildings, making one into a museum and interpretative center.

“Preservation and interpretation of MSP will provide an exceptional, historic in-depth educational experience for visitors, making MSP a nationally significant heritage tourism location site allowing visitors to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories of the past and present,” the administration said in a planning document outlining the project.

During a hearing on the project, Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, was among those recoiling at the idea.

“I tried to talk myself out of saying this, but this is at least the stupidest idea I’ve heard all day,” Windham said. “I don’t even really know where to start.”

Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, had a similar reaction.

“I don’t think I’ll be taking my grandchildren,” Burnett said.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, questioned whether the facility would be making an attraction out of the suffering of thousands of inmates.

“I, for one, think a lot of people would be very unhappy to see this,” Merideth said.

Smith said he agreed with those sentiments and also expressed concern about the nearly $100 million cost.

“The proposal was quite ambitious in scope and scale,” Smith said. “The cost is staggering. There are a lot of roads we could build with that money.”

He said he attempted to find a way to pare down the project in order to keep some elements of the history of the site, but was unable to find agreement with the administration.

“I’m still open to discussion how we maintain that site. I think there is a balance to be found,” Smith said. “It’s a fine line between commercializing it and glorifying it. I just think it needs to be done thoughtfully and respectfully.”

A representative of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is backing the project, declined to comment Monday.

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