Economic development officials in Hardin are looking at the soon-to-close detention facility in Guantanamo Bay as a possible fix for the jail sitting empty in Hardin.
President Barack Obama signed an executive order Jan. 22 to close the Guantanamo detention facilities in Cuba where hundreds of enemy combatants have been held since 2002. The closure is to occur in a year, during which time remaining detainees must be returned to their home countries or detained elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a 460-bed detention facility sits empty in Hardin. Built by Two Rivers Authority, the city's economic development arm, the facility was meant to bring economic development to Hardin by creating more than 100 high-paying jobs.
While leaders continue to look for contracts to open the jail, which was completed in 2007, people in Hardin have approached Two Rivers executive director Greg Smith saying they have the answer: Get the contract to hold those prisoners from Guantanamo.
Smith said he started looking into the process to contract - which still isn't clear - and has talked to other possible players, including federal agencies and staffs of the Montana congressional delegation.
It's also not yet clear which agency would operate the facility that ends up holding the detainees.
The Hardin City Council voted Tuesday to support Two Rivers' efforts.
The council resolution states that the city "fully supports the efforts of the Two Rivers Authority to contact State and Federal officials for the purpose of inquiring into the possibility of housing Guantanamo detainees at the Two Rivers Authority in Hardin, Montana, and to determine whether the Two Rivers Detention Center could provide a safe and secure environment for housing said detainees."
Nationally, the focus has been on Alexandria, Va. The town boasts a detention facility and is close to federal courts.
That's nothing on Hardin, Smith said.
Although federal court services are in Billings, Smith contends that the 45 miles of interstate is very likely easier to traverse than several blocks in a metropolitan area.
Any city that takes the detainees is going to have issues to deal with, Smith said. But the federal government won't just dump detainees into an area without bolstering the system to provide them with the due process that is part of Obama's executive order.
"There are 50 states, and some state is going to get this and they're all going to have issues and they're all going to need money," Smith said. "But we have something the others don't."
Smith said Two Rivers Detention Center is a modern, empty facility. It is built so that with just minor conversions it can be upgraded from medium to higher security. Because the detainees would be the only prisoners in the facility, it would be easy to accommodate prisoners' dietary, language and religious requirements.
If someone were to escape, Smith said, there aren't any huge buildings nearby to dodge into. Montana is pretty homogenous, so detainees, many of Middle Eastern descent, would not easily blend into crowds, he said.
And bringing detainees to this area has happened before, Smith said. There were prisoner-of-war camps in Laurel during World War II. There were also internee camps in Missoula and near Powell, Wyo.
Offering a turnkey facility is practically a patriotic duty, Smith said.
"We're offering our president an option," he said. "If he wants it, we have it available. We want to step forward and say, 'Mr. President, we have a solution. How can we make it happen?' "
Smith said there's really no reason for Hardin not to be considered.
"We have to look at the obstacles to overcome and then overcome them," he said. "A lot of it is just getting people to think how it could work."
Two Rivers Authority ran into troubles shortly after construction on the facility finished in July 2007 when the state had no prisoners to send there. Hardin sought contracts with other states to bring in their prisoners, an effort that was shut down for months while the city sued Montana and eventually won the case but hasn't succeeded in finding contracts.
Without prisoners, TRA hasn't been able to repay $27 million in revenue bonds that paid for construction. The project went into default last year. The bond payments are being made from a reserve fund, which would have to be repaid along with the ongoing payments once the facility starts generating revenue.
For Smith and many in Hardin, that can't come soon enough. Smith said it is his job to "uncover every rock" to find ways to get the detention center operating. He knows there are options available, it's just a matter for finding them and seeking out contracts. People who don't like the idea of alleged enemy combatants coming to town can help, he said.
"To those who don't want it, help us find something so we can fill it," Smith said.