Hortonia group to hold anti-youth prison rally
Saturday event aims to unite opponents of state project
By Scott Bellile
Passerby may notice “No Prison in Hortonia” signs popping up in yards throughout the New London and Hortonville areas.
The group invites residents of all surrounding communities to a citizens’ rally Saturday, June 15, at 10 a.m. at Hortonia Town Hall, W9702 Givens Road.
So far Citizens for the Preservation of Hortonia has distributed yard signs, started a Facebook group, circulated petitions and spoken to elected officials. Saturday’s event aims to continue building the momentum.
The rally will also offer people courses of action such as contacting their state lawmakers and the Joint Committee on Finance.
Citizens for the Preservation of Hortonia is chaired by Tim Manion and Dan Mercer.
Mercer said members do not deny the need for a juvenile correctional facility. Rather, they believe the rural town of Hortonia is not the place for it.
“We just don’t feel that the state and the Department of Corrections took their time and actually looked at a feasible site for it,” Mercer said.
His group argues the land, owned by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and located next to the Frick Ford auto dealership along State Highway 15, fails to meet the state Juvenile Corrections Study Committee’s criteria for site selection.
Mercer said those criteria include being located near technical schools and universities as well as having a “willing” partner in the school district to commit community resources to the facility.
The nearest postsecondary education institutions – the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, Lawrence University and Fox Valley Technical College – are each 15 to 25 miles away.
To date, the School District of New London has not said whether it would partner with the state to supply resources to the juvenile facility.
“Other than sharing with the board the potential sites for such a facility quite some time ago, the board has not entered into a conversation to determine the level of support, if any, for such a proposal,” School District of New London Superintendent Dennis Krueger told the Press Star Monday, June 10. “In addition, the district has not been asked to determine (its) willingness to partner either.”
Citizens for the Preservation of Hortonia says the development would take a toll on local residents in the form of crime, negative environmental impacts and lowered property values.
State officials pushed back against these claims at an April 30 community meeting at Hortonia Town Hall.
DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said of crime and safety: “The kids that would be at this facility, they’ve done some serious things, but it’s going to be a secure facility. We don’t have escapes. I think that you have nothing to fear in the community when this facility opens here.”
“The whole thing will be enclosed in a secured fence, so it’s not going to be open,” added Naomi De Mers, administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Administration’s Division of Facilities Development and Management.
As for the environment, the state will conduct an environmental impact statement to examine factors such as soil conditions and the possible presence of endangered animals before building, according to Robert Hoffmann, project manager for the Division of Facilities Development and Management.
And speaking on property values, DOA Secretary Joel Brennan said he lives within 1 mile of a secured detention facility in Milwaukee and has not seen his property values take a hit.
Mercer further argues the state left Hortonia officials and residents out of its site selection process, a criticism that Carr admitted to in April.
“We could have done a much better job rolling this out when the governor made this announcement over a month ago, and for that, I personally and deeply from the bottom of my heart apologize,” Carr told the crowd.
Mercer said the group’s end goal is to see the youth prison built elsewhere. He suggested the I-41 corridor, which he said would bring the facility closer to many of the youth the facility would serve.
Carr said at April’s meeting that “there is no plan B” for an alternative site.
Hortonia’s facility would be one of several constructed statewide to replace the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma, which were subjects of controversy over mistreatment of children and prison staff.
The $35 million Type 1 juvenile correctional facility would house 24 boys and eight girls on at least 7 acres of property. State officials say it would be designed more like a school than a prison.
The DOC anticipates legislative approval this summer, construction next year and a 2021 opening.