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Harry's Gang: I vote to keep Carlton County jail downtown

I’m disappointed the county has decided to put the new jail out in Olsonville, where the transportation building is now. Sure, it’s just three miles away from its current location, but I think it’s going to leave a big hole in downtown Carlton, and that’s a shame.

By law, the courts will need to be included in the jail site plan. Add the likely end of Carlton High School and Carlton suddenly has some gaping holes to fill.

Other county offices will remain, and the businesses aren’t going anywhere soon. Carlton also draws visitors from Jay Cooke State Park, and there are service businesses and restaurants and bars that are popular. Losing the jail might not immediately affect these businesses, but it’s the start of a downward trend.

But still, the jail and school employ an awful lot of people, and the courthouse brings all sorts of people to town every day for various reasons. That’s a lot of customers for the local businesses, who, in case you were wondering, are not going to move out to Olsonville along with the new jail. No, what we will see in downtown Carlton is an exodus of ready customers and decreased business revenues that will force some businesses to close altogether.

I’m reminded of downtown Cloquet when I first moved to town in 1999. After 5 p.m., you could take a nap on Cloquet Avenue and not be disturbed until morning. The once-bustling downtown shopping district had been replaced by new businesses that opened on the Minnesota Highway 33 corridor, starting as early as the Lumberjack Mall and continuing to the Walmart store expansion. This is the natural evolution of retail businesses, of course. But as businesses left downtown Cloquet, the ones remaining found it hard to attract customers. That’s what I think will happen to Carlton when the jail moves out.

I wish there were a better alternative, but I know the county had been studying this issue for years before voting, unanimously, to plan for building the jail next to the land it owns at the transportation building site. Modern building codes require much larger lots than can be found in downtown Carlton, and there was no guarantee the old high school space would have been available in time. We can’t wait much longer to start the new jail, so I suppose it’s inevitable the commissioners had to make a decision. I’m just not a fan of urban sprawl.

I remember the discussions about the new human services building a few years ago. Some wanted to locate the new building at the same Olsonville site, but eventually the county decided to build it in downtown Cloquet. It was a wise decision. With the power of eminent domain behind them, the county bought all the properties it needed along Avenue B and built a pretty nice facility in the heart of the city. It truly helped stabilize that area. I wish that were an option in Carlton.

You can see for yourself what happens when a county moves its facilities to the outer edge of town. Look no further than Pine County to our south. Their courthouse used to be located in downtown Pine City, but in 2008 a new courthouse/law enforcement center opened in a field a few miles away. Pine City became somewhat of a ghost town. Carlton, which is much smaller than Pine City, is even more dependent on the county’s business.

And what’s going to happen to the old buildings? It’s difficult to repurpose an old jail and the high school is an expensive and unlikely fix. Maybe it will be turned into apartments? County office space? Other towns dedicate these old spaces to civic causes, like theater or the arts, which would fit nicely into the boom Carlton has seen in recent years in that department. But at what cost?

I don’t really have any solutions to this issue, and I appreciate the leadership of our county commissioners as they made this decision. But I don’t have to like it. I don’t.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].