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State prison hospital also creating 5,500 construction jobs
MAP NorCal Womens Prison
The $900 million California Health Care Facility is being built within 10 miles of downtown Manteca. - photo by RYAN BALBUENA

STOCKTON – Sick prisoners might be just what the doctor ordered for the struggling San Joaquin County economy.

With an unemployment rate inching toward 16 percent and thousands of foreclosed homes sitting vacant throughout Stockton, Lodi, Manteca, Ripon and Escalon, the construction of the $900 million California Health Care Facility Stockton – a medical and mental health care facility for patient-inmates within California’s prison system – could end up serving as a fiscal life raft.

The project, which is already under way, is expected to create more than 5,500 construction jobs with more than 1,700 workers on site at one time erecting the 31 buildings, 11 guard towers and a 13-foot electrified lethal fence that will serve as the framework for the 1.2-million-square-foot complex.

Once the project is completed more than 2,400 civil servants will oversee the 1,722-bed facility. The project is expected to be completed by summer of 2013.

The state prison hospital is near Arch and Austin roads within 10 miles of downtown Manteca.

“This is the largest entity that has come to our city is a long time,” said Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston. “It brings jobs with good salaries and jobs with good benefits, and that’s important for a city with a 20 percent unemployment rate.”

And it’s local people that will be doing the work.

A stipulation in the agreement with the City of Stockton requires that a certain number of the contractors be from the immediate area and limits the range for others to a 50-mile radius – an attempt to give skilled tradesmen in San Joaquin County a chance to work through what is normally their slow season.  

Three major construction firms – Clark/McCarthy of Sacramento, Granite Construction of Watsonville (with local branches in French Camp, Stockton and Tracy) and Hensel Phelps Construction of Stockton – are taking the lead in their respective areas. A total of 62 local companies have signed on to complete the massive undertaking.

But the road to get to the groundbreaking wasn’t exactly a smooth one.

After former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that called for an overhaul of California’s correctional system in 2007, funding became available for projects like the Stockton site. In theory, the move would save the state money by not having to contract with private hospitals to provide medical services for inmates and cut down on the need to transport them back and forth from sites like Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy.

Stockton, however, wasn’t thrilled with the concept of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation razing the abandoned Karl Holton Youth facility and building such a large facility without improvements to the area. Arch Road – the main access road to the facility off of Highway 99 – receives heavy truck traffic to neighboring industrial sites and other rural routes like Austin Road.

A settlement agreement was reached, and the state will provide the following improvements and environmental mitigation:

• Widening of the Highway 99 off-ramp and signal onto Arch Road

• Contributing $171,000 for signals at Arch and Austin Roads

• Widening Austin Road and adding a signal at the facility entry

• Shelling out $680,000 to the county and $1.2 million for transportation improvements

• Giving $690,000 to Stockton Unified School District and $690,000 to local governments

• Making a financial contribution to the San Joaquin Habitat Conservation Plan

Getting everything worked out, in the eyes of Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Doug Wilhoit – a non-voting member of the committee that worked with the city to hammer out the agreement.

“It started out contentious and it was a ‘we’ against ‘they’ kind of mentality, but by the end it really became an ‘us’ scenario,” Wilhoit said. “I really think that we’re on our way with the relationships that we built. When you look out there and see the walls going up and all of the things that you worked through start to become true.”

Mike Meredith – the Project Director from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – said that a secondary project at the adjacent vacant women’s facility that was supposed to be converted into a short-term reintroduction complex has been put on hold pending a review of the funding.

The recent addition of a secure wing at San Joaquin County General Hospital – a facility that offers surgery as an option when needed in a locked-down environment – is something that Meredith says will also benefit San Joaquin County now that a contract is signed and the site is operational.

“They’ve got 25 beds there in a secure unit now, and it’s a site that protects the public while providing revenue to the hospital and saves the hospital money,” Meredith said. “The state is now paying the regular rate and it’s saving the citizens of San Joaquin County money.”