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On Verge of Becoming Ghost Town, Avenal Sees Prison as Its Salvation

Associated Press

Oil created this remote San Joaquin Valley town, but criminals will cause its second boom.

Huge earthmovers are tearing into the hills southeast of Avenal to prepare a 640-acre site for a 3,000-inmate state prison.

Avenal looked like it was on the verge of becoming a ghost town when city officials latched onto the idea of attracting a prison more than two years ago.

Broken windows were pockmarks on vacant downtown storefronts, and wide lots separated ramshackle houses on streets lacking sidewalks and curbs. The heyday started by a gusher in 1926 was long over.

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But the prison has made a dramatic change even though its first inmate is not due until the spring of 1987.

Mayor Harlin Casida hopes the $168-million prison will help the community double its population of 4,300. Building permit values rose slightly to $1.8 million in 1984 and then jumped to $15 million last year.

One apartment complex has been built; another is on its way; a 250-unit, single-family tract is coming; another will follow, and a lot has been subdivided for 500 more homes, Casida said.

A furniture store, doctors’ office complex, 160-unit motel, restaurant, coin-operated laundry, grocery store and convenience shops have sprouted.

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“I’m a hometown boy. I grew up here, went away to school, taught one year in the Fresno area and then came back,” Casida said with pride.

He and other Avenal officials were trying to coax electronics assembly plants or clothing manufacturers into town before they heard that the state was looking for prison sites.

The city technically was out of consideration because the prisons were earmarked for Southern California.

“We looked at it as an industry, and we figured where else could you get an industry that would employ 900 people, use no natural resources, be pollution-free, and run year-round regardless of whether there’s a recession or a depression or whatever the economy does,” Casida said.

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Prison supporters actively lobbied the state Department of Corrections.

“They were flabbergasted with the welcome they got,” the mayor recalled. “They said they were used to being met at the city limits with shotguns and pitchforks. We met them at the city limits with coffee and doughnuts and a warm reception.”

The overwhelming attitude of acceptance helped, in Casida’s view.

“We’ve had a real good working relationship with the prison people in that they’ve never been treated like this,” he said. “So they said, ‘Let’s make this a showplace.’ We’ve gone out on a limb, so to speak, for a prison and the people who work for that industry, and we hope they support us.”

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Nine farmers temporarily stalled the project by suing over water rights in the arid hills, but a state appeals court dismissed their lawsuit in January because special legislation waived environmental review rules on the project.

Another thing that bothered residents was “the big if,” the possibility of escape.

Casida admitted that the potential disturbed him, but “we thought the positive so far outweighed the ‘what if’ that we went for it.”

The attraction of a prison as a relatively low-risk, long-term industry prompted another Kings County community about 45 miles away to invite the state in, and Corcoran won a commitment for ground breaking on a 2,900-inmate prison.

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“Everybody’s kind of jumping on the bandwagon,” Casida said. “Corcoran jumped on our shirttails and rode us all the way through.”


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