by Stephen Harris
I was a participant in the briefing provided by the Ontario Solicitor General’s staff on the proposed detention centre for Kemptville at the Campus property. My overarching sentiment of the experience was one of disappointment. My disappointment is rooted in the cavalier attitude of the government’s participants towards the community – particularly having completely ignored its character, and egregiously failing to acknowledge both the municipality’s original debate to buy the campus, and its interest in acquiring the vacant farmland across the road.
First, the presentation by the bureaucrats focused on how the province’s requirements would be satisfied by using this so-called “surplus” land, without acknowledging the needs and wishes of the community itself. The bureaucratic argument for why the Kemptville site was chosen was based on the fact that it was free – although there was some weak acknowledgment that potential employees lived south of the 417 highway. No concrete evidence was provided. Also, we were told that the site provided easy access to the 416 highway. There are many acres of vacant land along the 416, particularly just south of Barrhaven, where at least two large commercial buildings are being erected, and where a detention centre would be more appropriate, and where no residential properties are located. The fact that the government, in reality, didn’t want to absorb the cost of a new piece of land simply means that the externalities of the decision to locate the facility in Kemptville would have to be absorbed indirectly by members of the Kemptville community, rather than directly by residents of Ontario more generally.
Second, the bureaucrats, to support their case, pointed to other communities in Ontario where the siting of prisons has been successful. Indeed, they had the audacity to suggest that the residents of these communities (Windsor, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Brampton, Lindsay) would have moved away if they were not satisfied with their situation. What a silly and disingenuous assertion. Moreover, the noted municipalities are considerably larger, both in area and particularly population (by multiples of 100’s in some cases), where a new institution would have little but marginal impact on the community compared to the situation in Kemptville with only 4,000 residents. Indeed, the character and culture of Kemptville will be under attack.
Third, if Kemptville needs anything to spur its economic development, it is having viable innovative industries providing good paying jobs. What the bureaucrats offered was grass cutting, snow removal, restaurants, and coffee shops. Economic development is not built on the shoulders of low wage jobs associated with the bureaucratic argument. Indeed, research undertaken in the United States on the siting of prisons in rural areas shows no positive effects for economic development. Comparing prison towns with non-prison towns, the former perform worse, in economic terms, than non-prison towns. Actually, unemployment is higher, poverty is higher, and average wages are lower in prison towns than non-prison towns. The increase in housing values is also lower. So, what the government is offering Kemptville is more of the same – low wage, low education requirement jobs, and increasing inequality in exchange for some free land. If the land could be “commercialized”, we would all be better off: good paying jobs in innovative industries and positive flow of property tax revenues. At the meeting, I asked the bureaucrats for the cost-benefit analysis of the policy decision to locate the facility in Kemptville. It was obvious from the answers – which droned on – that no such analysis had been undertaken. Indeed, the decision process reflected an observed pattern by this government: seat of the pants decision-making pushing aside rigorous analysis that would balance the issues raised here. And it was all done in secret.
Finally, one could ask, where do we go from here? This community has a history of reacting to bad decisions, and as a community we should continue to put pressure on provincial politicians. Moreover, our municipal politicians should be less than even-handed in their deliberations with the local MPP and other politicians, because the location of the prison offers nothing to Kemptville residents. The mayor has suggested from time to time that some business people are supportive of the facility because it will generate business. The rigorous policy analysis, which is available to local bureaucrats if they look for it, tells us that business will not be stimulated by the facility. If the mayor thinks this is not the case, then some empirical analysis ought to be brought forward. Alice in Wonderland policies, or policies of hope, hope that everything works out, will not work.