Advocates: Old school and jail don’t mix

Mary Ann Wilber, in yellow outfit, joins others in walking the grounds of the old Meeker elementary school after appealing to Rio Blanco County commissioners not to build a jail on the site. Wilber attended the school. PHOTO BY DENNIS WEBB

MEEKER — Advocates for preserving Meeker’s former elementary school appear little swayed by proposals that might save part of it but still allow construction of a 48-bed Rio Blanco County jail on the site.

Efforts to preserve the structure and turn it into a community center are taking on added urgency after Meeker town trustees decided earlier this year to turn over the building to the county and the county began pursuing in earnest the idea of building a bigger jail there.

The red-sandstone building was one of the last undertakings of what in the 1930s originally was called the Works Progress Administration, and an addition to the school was built later. While tearing it down is one option for the county, it also has put together proposals including keeping the original part of the school for use as a community building while incorporating it into the justice center design, or keeping the original school’s façade as part of a justice center.

But in a meeting with commissioners this week, the school’s advocates continued not only to argue in favor of the building’s potential as a community center, but to contend a jail there, across the street from the current one at the county courthouse, is inappropriate.

Bob Amick told commissioners a new jail would be incongruent with a downtown that someday might become a national historic district.

“If you throw a penal institute in the middle you’ve lost that,” he said.

He and other advocates pointed to Carbondale’s success in converting an old school building into a hub for community activities and attracting tourists.

Task force members say the same thing can happen in Meeker.

But county Commissioner Shawn Bolton said all the local business owners he hears from say keeping the jail downtown is important to their businesses.

The county considers adding on to the courthouse to be less practical, and another option would be to build the new jail outside town.

Retired former Meeker business owner Gerald Morris said if the latter occurred, local businesses would lose traffic associated with the jail.

County officials say the current jail, with about 30 beds, dates back to the 1930s and is beset by safety and operational challenges. They fear a court could order them to build a new facility that would cost far more than the $15 million they’ve saved and believe would be needed to build on the school site.


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