Published 8:26 am Monday, March 31, 2014

GATESVILLE – Just call it the ultimate makeover.

What was once the home of criminals is now the office of Gates County Emergency Management as the former state prison located off US 158 east of Gatesville has found re-use value.

Deeded to the county last fall, the old prison now breathes new life. The main dormitory – located behind the original brick structure – houses Gates County Emergency Management Director Billy Winn and his staff…. Bud Perrone, the county’s Fire Inspector, and James Hollowell, Emergency Management Assistant.

Inside the refurbished building is a situational room where local, district and state agencies can gather in the event of a man-made or natural disaster. That room contains four Situational Awareness Monitors, allowing Gates County EM to multitask with agencies such as the local power companies, NC DOT, NC Highway Patrol, etc. during a storm or in a search and rescue effort.

There is a Social Media Room where a staff member or volunteer can keep the public informed using that popular method of communication.

The building has full wireless capability, to include printing. It has a large map printer, a hand-me-down from the land records office.

It also contains a fully-functional kitchen, and a multifaceted conference room.

“Say we have a countywide emergency situation, the board of commissioners can meet and make decisions in this room and have the privacy they need while we’re working in the situation room. The School Board can also meet here if needed in case of a school-wide emergency,” Winn stated.

“The plan was to centralize mission essential equipment and operations,” he added. “This compound is big enough to stage power trucks, police vehicles, National Guard vehicles, and disaster relief agencies. And DOT next door has been a great asset to us. We’re in a great location, central to the county. It’s much better than what we had.”

Winn remembered the first disaster event he worked in the county in 2007 upon taking the job as EM Director.

“That was Tropical Storm Nicole and we operated our EOC out of the old commissioner’s meeting room in the courthouse,” Winn recalled. “Then with Hurricane Irene we ran from the back room where the holding cell is in the courthouse. Looking back on that now, I don’t know how we made it work.”

Winn’s first “space” in the courthouse was basically a storage closet turned into an office.

“It was so small that I had to stand up and move the chair from my desk to open the door,” he said.

The remodeled facility is roomy….about 3,000 square feet. The old EOC, located in a modular unit down the hill behind the county courthouse, was roughly 500 square feet.

“The commissioners gave us $50,000 to work with and the pole barn (30 feet by 100 feet) cost nearly one-half of that appropriation,” Winn said. “We have garnered, through donations, as much as they gave us…so we’ve doubled their money.”

That barn completely covers Gates County EM’s assets, to include its vehicles, generators, light towers, etc.

“We had that equipment spread out at four different locations; now it’s all in one place, centrally located in the county and locked behind a fence,” Winn said.

The building also contains a radio room. Winn said future plans are to make that room fully operational and used as a back-up to the primary emergency responders’ radio room now in use at the Sheriff’s Office. There are two dispatch stations in place in the EM Radio Room, each valued at $10,000 and were a gift to Gates County from Wilson County who had upgraded their equipment.

The remodeling effort was basically a labor of love by EM staff and friends.

“We did all the framing, all the sheetrock and all the painting,” Winn noted. “We did purchase the carpet from United Floor Covering of Gates, but the guy we bought it from installed it for free. We hired an electrician and a plumber to do that type of work.”

An old single-wide mobile home on the property, once used as the prison library, has transformed into a storage area and sign-making shop for Gates County EM.

The old part of the prison – the original brick facility – will be used for storage and records management, to include state and federal asset storage.

An open field behind the compound plus 10 acres of woods were also included in the deed transfer from the state to the county. The field and woods can be utilized for search and rescue training.

“It’s 20 acres total,” Winn said. “Some of the property and buildings were given to the DOT office adjacent to us.”

The old kitchen for the prison is among the next remodel projects for Winn and his staff to tackle. It will remain a kitchen for use as a mass feeding area in case of a man-made or natural disaster.

“It’s a fairly large dining area there,” Winn noted. “We can put that to use when and if the need arises or allow response teams such as the Baptist Men, Red Cross and Salvation Army to use it if needed.”

Beyond the dining hall is another building that once contained offices, a barber shop and prison laundry room.

“We will eventually make use of that building as well,” Winn said.

The plan to move Gates County EM from Gatesville to the old prison, which closed in 2009, began 24 months ago. At that time, Winn along with then County Manager Toby Chappell were made aware that the prison property may be made available.

“There were no concrete plans developed at that time, but Toby and I both had the idea that this property would be a great place for our Emergency Operations Center,” Winn recalled.

That started a series of letters and email correspondence between the Gates County Manager – first, Chappell, and then Ken Windley and Jon Mendenhall – and the North Carolina Division of Public Safety. Winn got his boss – State Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry – involved in the ongoing discussion.

In June of last year, several state officials met at the old prison with Winn and Mendenhall and a plan of action was put in place. Two month later, the North Carolina General Assembly approved the plan (and Governor Pat McCrory signed the document) to sell the old Gates Correctional Center to the county for $1.

That got the ball rolling on the remodeling effort.

“We were able to do a lot here in a short period of time,” Winn stated, looking around at his new space. “We’ve already put this office to use during the big winter storm we had earlier this year.”

And the remodeling effort was able to remain within its budget thanks to numerous donations as well as volunteer labor.

All the trim lumber was donated by Ashton Lewis Lumber of Gatesville. Capital One Credit of Chesapeake, VA donated the office furniture. Even some of the bookshelves from the old Gates County Library are now in use at the EM Office. The State Employees Credit Union donated a refrigerator, a shredder and other office equipment. A grant from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety was used to purchase a generator.

The main building on the property is the Emergency Operations Center; the complex will be known as the Emergency Services Support Center.

“The idea is that our fire departments, EMS, utility companies, county officials…..if they need to have a meeting, this is the place,” Winn said. “We have a cement pad to host training; we have some room for storage…this will be a fully functional facility.”

An open house for the new EOC was held March 20. That event was attended by Winn’s EM colleagues from throughout the northeastern part of the state as well as Sprayberry.

“Mike was the key that finally unlocked the lock to this facility,” Winn said at that function. “He contacted his superior, Public Safety Secretary Kieran Shanahan, and they came to Gates County. A plan was introduced and we were given 20 acres of land from the state.”

“This is a demonstration of partnership,” said Sprayberry. “Everybody worked together. You guys here at the county level made this happen. The elbow grease you put into this project….my part was easy, you guys had the major muscle movement.

“What makes me very proud when I see this facility is that it adds North Carolina being a more capable and resilient state, against all hazards,” he continued. “You have a centralized office here, very capable of meeting the needs of the citizens of Gates County.”

Previously, the state transferred ownership of the prison’s wastewater treatment facility to the county. That 20-acre site also serves GatesCountyHigh School and CentralMiddle School. The county’s interest in that facility is in an effort to provide sewer service to Merchants Commerce Center, an area of planned commercial development on US 158 in front of Gates County High School and the Gates County Community Center.

Work is complete on phase 1 of the sewer project, one that has expanded the treatment facility from 11,000 gallons per day capacity to 50,000.

Just prior to its closing on Oct. 1, 2009, the prison was home to 96 inmates and 31 staff members.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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