Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sweetwater's WASP Museum opposes its proposed neighbor: a county jail

From Reporter News: Sweetwater's WASP Museum opposes its proposed neighbor: a county jail
The National Women Airforce Service Pilots Museum sits on a pristine piece of land on the western edge of Sweetwater.

The museum is a simple metal hangar surrounded by plenty of flat, open spaces, with billowing grass and minor brush. Except for a nearby VFW post, the WASP occupies its own little world, celebrating the wartime efforts of an all-female organization of pilots that operated from 1942 to 1944.

But would a new county jail and sheriff's office across the street upset this pleasant image? That's the conversation currently unfolding between WASP Museum leaders and members of the Nolan County government.

Everyone involved agrees a new jail is needed. The current model, a 54-bed unit that occupies the second floor of the Nolan County Courthouse, is antiquated. It's been there since the courthouse's construction in 1977. It lacks adequate facilities for female inmates, as well as properly equipped isolation cells.

As a result, the jail has had to ship out inmates to other county jails and still foot the bill for their stays. Moreover, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has been hounding Nolan County to upgrade its facilities for years now, saying the current model couldn't pass its inspections.

Sharron Davis, director of the WASP Museum, respects the urgency and importance of the matter. But her complaint is that of all the land surrounding Sweetwater, why did county commissioners have to choose the real estate right next to one of the city's top historic and cultural sites for a new jail?

"A jail would detract from the story of American greatness that we're telling," Davis said. "This is a beautiful venue, with wide open West Texas skies. ... That all would be diminished somewhat by a new law enforcement facility, no matter how nice."

WASP directors weren't consulted about the proposed site, but Nolan County Judge Tim Fambrough and County Commissioner Terry Willman say that's because they never imagined the location would be contentious.

"We never saw any possibility of harm to the museum," Fambrough said. "We've lived with (the jail) here at the courthouse for 35 years."

Willman says he has discussed the matter at length with Davis since then.

"I showed her some of the plans, what the facade would look like," Willman said. "It's not going to be like the prisons you see on TV, with razor wire and guys outside lifting weights. It's a county jail — the inmates are going to be inside all the time."

While Nolan County considered alternative sites, none of them quite matched the convenience of the plot of land located on Avenger Field Road. The same qualities that have made the WASP's location such a nice place apply here, too: easy access to Interstate 20 and downtown Sweetwater, a flat and clear topography, and nearby electricity and sewage lines. Other sites would require costly utility upgrades and other less than convenient sacrifices.

Fambrough expects the topic to come up for discussion at upcoming County Commissioners meetings, perhaps as early as this morning's 9 a.m. session. Like Willman, he's amenable to talking the matter through with the WASP — he's served on the museum's board, in fact.

The new jail, which will feature an expanded 96 beds, currently is in the design phase, meaning there's theoretically still a chance to change its location. Price estimates on the facility's cost range up to $11 million.

All of this back-and-forth comes just before groundbreaking for the WASP Museum's expansion project. An official ceremony May 26 will unveil plans to add an entire building to the museum's existing hangar, including a theater, additional displays and a museum store.

The new building will be climate controlled, allowing for more sensitive historical items to go up on display.

Davis said the museum is seeking to raise $4 million to fund the project, with a goal to complete construction by the end of 2013.

Funded through private donations (including several by former WASP members), the museum features a glimpse into a little-known unit of civilian women who flew military aircraft during World War II amid a near crippling shortage of male pilots. Sweetwater's Avenger Field was a training site for WASP pilots.

To learn about the museum and the women it celebrates, visit waspmuseum.org

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