Kella and Aiden Sowder didn’t know rising before the sun would land them in the slammer.
But instead of sitting in solitary confinement, the 3- and 6-year-old siblings played with echoes and dusty chalkboards as they trotted along a public tour with their father, Fred Sowder, of the former Gainesville Correctional Institution Saturday.
In an effort to gauge the public’s interest toward purchasing and using the former jail as a multipurpose community center, the City of Gainesville and other partners invited the public to take a tour through the vacant buildings.
About 150 people attended, including City Commissioner Randy Wells, who said transforming the former jail can offer a place for job skill training, education and small business development.
“I think our responsibility is to address the values and concerns of our community,” Wells said.
He said the city wants to purchase the 16-acre property and an additional 55 acres.
With the purchase, the facility would include an aquaculture pond, additional buildings, recreation fields and buffer lands, which can be used as a laboratory for forestry and agriculture projects.
Theresa Lowe, director of the Gainesville/Alachua County Office on Homelessness, prepared groups for the tour in the former prison’s visitors center.
She said she could envision the facility used as a place for innovation, offering job hunting services, culinary classes, day care and shelter.
“When it’s fully finished, I see it as a place where people can come to get empowered,” Lowe said. “With this, we can lift people out of poverty. We can prevent homelessness, and if we can prevent homelessness, then we can end homelessness.”
Lowe said part of the reason for holding a public tour was to get usage ideas but also to let citizens know what’s going on in their town.
Sowder, a vice chair on the city’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Board, said an artistic renovation to the building could bring the old facility back to life.
“We could have artists paint murals and rehabilitate the buildings — spruce up the place, at the very least,” he said.
Until the purchase, the former prison will remain vacant.
Wells said he hopes city and county residents will contribute to the project.
“We’re very open to ideas that can help this community over time,” he said. “We want to have a broad vision.”
Contact Alex Catalano at [email protected].