Local officials split on project
By Scott Bellile
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections selected the town of Hortonia as one of two sites in the state where a youth juvenile correctional facility will be built.
Gov. Tony Evers made the announcement Tuesday, March 12.
The state would likely build Hortonia’s facility 1 mile south of New London on Department of Transportation-owned land southeast of the intersection of State Highway 15 and U.S. Highway 45. The plot is just north of River Road and about a half-mile southeast of the Frick Ford auto dealership.
The two state facilities – one in Hortonia and the other in Milwaukee – will replace the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls, both located in Irma in northern Wisconsin. Former Gov. Scott Walker directed the closures in 2017 Wisconsin Act 185.
Three more regional county-run facilities throughout Wisconsin may be announced in the future.
“We are committed to getting kids out of Lincoln Hills and closer to home as soon as we safely and responsibly can,” Evers said in a statement. “Today’s announcements show significant action towards our shared goal of ensuring kids get the education, programming and mental health treatment they need in supportive settings that are closer to their families and communities.”
Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson reacted positively to the governor’s announcement.
“Outagamie County has been a statewide and national leader in criminal justice reform—getting smart on crime, keeping our communities safe, turning lives around, helping families. And saving taxpayer dollars,” he said in an email to the Press Star. “This affords us an opportunity to showcase our innovative reforms and find ways in which we can partner and collaborate for the benefit of all.”
Hortonia Town Clerk Lyn Neuenfeldt had a different reaction.
“The town of Hortonia was completely shocked by the announcement today, and we have not been consulted at all about this,” Neuenfeldt said.
She said she took calls all day Tuesday from concerned residents.
“We also have absolutely no zoning that would be appropriate to have this kind of facility in our township. And we have no interest of having this facility in our township either,” she said.
The state will need to go through the same permitting and zoning process as any resident or business would before constructing a facility in the town, Neuenfeldt said.
She added she disagrees with past statements by New London city officials that the facility would provide an economic boost to the area. Neuenfeldt predicted the DOC workers would come from outside the area rather than be hired locally.
Neuenfeldt also questions whether using state-owned land to build the facility could further delay or jeopardize the proposed State 15 bypass project, which has been in limbo for nearly two decades.
“We obviously have to wait until the state talks to us and until we have a chance to talk to the state before we can really say anything more about it,” she said. “There’s not a lot that we can do.”
State Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, told the Press Star the governor’s office handled the announcement unfairly by surprising everyone.
He said state officials must engage with Hortonia and New London officials and residents and build their case for the facility.
“They need to sell this topic to the local people or I think you’re going to have a hard time getting it done,” Cowles said. “At this point I don’t know if it can be sold to the people out there.”
One official who was optimistic about the project was New London Mayor Gary Henke. He said the news should not shock anyone because the public knew Hortonia was a finalist for the project since last fall.
“I think it’s going to be a very good thing for the area,” Henke said. “It’s about the same as having a new business move in. And I think it’s going to provide jobs, [it] helps with economic development for the area and I think it’s going to be a good deal all around.”
Henke said a state official told him the DOC is considering a 30-to-35-bed facility with a staff of 70 “good-paying” positions, primarily security guards, teachers, social workers and psychiatrists.
Henke said the state would like to have contractors bidding on the project by fall.
If Hortonia does not cooperate with the rezoning process, then Henke said the city of New London would help the DOC get its facility built by pursuing annexation of either that property or another DOT-owned plot on the southwest side of the U.S. 45/State 15 intersection.
Gaining the facility as a city water and sewer services customer would benefit the wastewater treatment plant, Henke said.
The state plans to schedule local community input sessions to collect public feedback.