Hager provides more details on plan for Luster Heights

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

State Rep. Kristi Hager (R - Waukon) has released more details regarding a proposed plan to utilize Luster Heights Correctional Facility as a faith-based, non-profit, transitional living center for individuals coming out of jail/prison or struggling with homelessness or substance abuse issues.

Hager, as part of “Citizens for Luster Heights,” has authored a petition asking the state of Iowa for a five-year lease of the facility, located outside Harpers Ferry, which was closed in February due to Department of Corrections (DOC)—and state—budget cuts.

Luster Heights had 69 inmates in residence at the time of the closure. All of them performed duties at the facility, while some also had jobs outside the facility, working for the Iowa DNR in Yellow River State Forest, or in area communities, like Marquette and McGregor.

The cities of Marquette and McGregor, along with many local residents, opposed the closure. Individuals met with legislators and contacted other government and public officials, advocating for Luster Heights’ re-opening and stressing its positive impact on not just the local communities, but also the inmates who earned valuable life and work skills.

Although Luster Heights had been slated for closure before, Hager said what made this year different was the need to de-appropriate revenue in the current fiscal budget.

“I met with DOC and then set up a meeting with former governor [Terry] Branstad to see what we could do to keep this facility open. His honest response referenced putting directors in positions to make these tough decisions,” Hager explained. “I am one who believes, when one door closes, another opens. From there, we pulled together a small group in Waukon comprised of law enforcement, mental health agents, hospital administration/staff to discuss the mental health needs within our communities.”

Hager said this ultimately led to a roundtable discussion with DOC Director Jerry Bartruff, DNR Director Chuck Gipp and former Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer. Another meeting with Branstad, State Rep. Michael Bergan and State Senator Michael Breitbach led to two tours of Luster Heights, “to help see this vision,” Hager shared.

“This facility has the capability to come alongside individuals struggling with drug addictions, homelessness and coming out of jail/prison,” Hager said. “Maybe this is the new direction for this facility.”

Hager said she’s hopeful this use will keep Luster Heights from sitting vacant for years, costing taxpayers millions of dollars in maintenance and becoming a liability.

According to Hager, the DOC released the Luster Heights property to the DNR last month, so any lease agreements would need to go through the Natural Resource Commission for approval.

“Once we get ‘approval,’ we will open this up to the public for additional input,” Hager said. “If others have an idea for the use of this property or other state properties, I would encourage you to act upon it.”

Hager’s proposal advocates for a five-year lease of Luster Heights’ main facility, wood shop, greenhouse and grounds. A board of directors, comprised of five to 15 people, would oversee the running of the facility, she said.

When asked which non-profit will be associated with the facility, Hager said that is yet to be determined.

“There are thoughts of calling it ‘Lustering Heights’ and dovetailing it under an existing non-profit,” she stated.

Hager and her husband, Bob, previously operated a similar facility, called Living Stone, near Waukon, from 2009 to 2012. IRS information shows Living Stone remains an active corporation, with Hager as the registered agent and president, vice president and treasurer. Her husband is listed as a director.

Lustering Heights may be based upon that model, Hager said.

“The structure of Living Stone was built upon the tripod of individual development, management skills and community involvement,” she explained. “The Living Stone model didn’t account for job creation, though it required residents to hold employment.”

Addressing concerns that some constituents may see her involvement as a conflict of interest, Hager said, “I’m not sure where the conflict of interest would be. As the previous director for Living Stone, I took no wage and  volunteered my time. We hired a house overseer to live there.”

Hager said she was also assured by former governor Branstad that leasing the facility to a faith-based entity would not be a problem.

“I have been told there are other non-profits leasing government property and being faith-based was not an exclusion,” she remarked.

“Lustering Heights,” noted Hager, would be supported through donations, fundraising, resident program fees and the industries seen as suitable for job skill training for residents.

“Luster Heights is structured to allow easily for various industries—a restaurant teaching residents culinary skills, hospitalilty and service; a woodworking shop for creating small homes and cabins; a greenhouse/gardens for producing spring plants and produce for farmers markets,” she said. “I can also see opportunities for recreational activities with Yellow River surrounding this.”

In the future, she’s hopeful the recreational/offices building could become a six- to eight-bed 24/48-hour crisis intervention center supported with tax dollars.

The petition, which was published on July 31, currently has 44 signatures. It can be found on the website gopetition.com.

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