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La Plata County considers possible uses for vacated juvenile detention center

Commissioners expected to decide fate of building in coming weeks
The Robert E. DeNier Youth Center in Bodo Industrial Park was closed by the state in 2018. Now, La Plata County officials are exploring possible uses for the building.

A homeless shelter? A new community corrections facility? Or a place for at-risk youths? The future of the now vacant Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center is up in the air, and it appears everyone has a different idea about how best to use it.

“There’s a lot of conversation in the community about its future use,” County Manager Chuck Stevens said Tuesday at a La Plata County Board of County Commissioners meeting.

The Colorado Department of Human Services abruptly shut down the youth detention center in August 2018 after accusations arose of inappropriate treatment of youth detainees by the contracted company, Rite of Passage.

With no plans to reopen the facility as a youth detention center, the building and property were transferred from state ownership to La Plata County this fall, raising the question of how to put the space to use.

In recent weeks, a petition has circulated and been submitted to county officials calling for the vacant building in Bodo Industrial Park to be renovated into a new homeless shelter, homeless navigation center and food bank.

Under the proposal, it would remove the city of Durango’s plan to create a homeless navigation center at the Manna soup kitchen, which is located near other social service buildings on Avenida del Sol in west Durango.

At the commission meeting Tuesday, both Stevens and La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said the DeNier building would not make for a suitable homeless shelter or navigation center, for a number of reasons.

For one, DeNier was built as a detention center, not a shelter, Stevens said, and it would likely be an expensive endeavor to carry out a large renovation.

And, Stevens said Manna has expressed it would not be able to operate a homeless navigation center at a separate location in Bodo Industrial Park, likely because of staffing issues.

Smith added many people living homeless suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues, and don’t necessarily want to live in a shelter, which would likely have rules.

Smith said it is also important to consider how much it would cost to operate a homeless shelter, not to mention the question of who would pay for it.

La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said she lives near Manna and adjacent social services buildings, and having those operations close to neighborhoods has been a problem over the years.

Neighborhood complaints associated with people living homeless in the area have been well documented in the past few years. A few years ago, an illegal homeless camp was shut down and redirected to Purple Cliffs.

“We have some real neighborhood concerns,” she said. “The social service campus the city operates really does impact the whole west side of Durango.”

Porter-Norton said she understands the complications setting up a homeless shelter and navigation center at DeNier, but the idea should be more thoroughly researched and explored.

“I think these ideas need some vetting,” she said. “When I look at what the biggest need in the community is ... it’s homelessness.”

County staff members and the Sheriff’s Office, however, recommended DeNier be used for a new community corrections building, which would relocate Hilltop House on Avenida del Sol.

Smith said the La Plata County Jail has 300 beds, and with the county’s growing population and subsequent crime, there will be a need in the future to expand.

The county has plans for an expansion that would cost an estimated $15 million. But using the DeNier building, which is adjacent to the jail, could cost half that amount, Smith said

“As this county continues to grow and experience crime, we will have a need for additional jail space at some time,” Smith said.

Stevens said $1 million has been budgeted this year for renovations for the purpose of moving community corrections. If commissioners chose a different route, the project as a whole may have to be rebudgeted and delayed.

No decisions were made Tuesday. Instead, the county will seek public comment for the next two weeks. Then, county commissioners will reconvene Feb. 23 to again discuss the building’s future.

No members of the public spoke during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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