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June 28 meeting set about Wallace Center

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — High-tech training, high-tech industrial hub and businesses involving robotics are all possibilities mentioned as uses for Decatur's old Lurleen B. Wallace Developmental Center property.

After years of speculation about future use for the closed state residential facility for people with mental retardation, area leaders will hear suggestions from economic experts at a 1:30 p.m. meeting June 28 at the center conference room.

State Department of Mental Health/Mental Retardation spokesman John Zeigler said the department wanted the meeting to present findings from a facilities study that Chicago based-Economic Research Associates and the Burrell Group architectural firm in Birmingham conducted.

Zeigler called the study a guide that DHM/MR, which owns the property, and area leaders can use to determine its best use. The potential impact of military Base Realignment and Closure on North Alabama makes the property potentially highly marketable for development, he said.

"If there are BRAC-related possibilities or other jobs that might come to the area, we want the Wallace Center on their radar screen," Zeigler said.

Zeigler said the facilities study gives recommendations about the best use for the property, but does not suggest specific businesses and industries.

"Our goal is to hand out the plan, go over recommendations and let people ask questions," Zeigler said. "The plan will suggest types of uses, but not specifics."

He called the meeting an important opportunity for mental health and local officials to work together on a plan.

The property once housed a 21-building residential facility for people with mental retardation, but the state no longer uses the property. DMH/MR looked for alternative uses for the property as a result.

The department also owns other property across the state for which the group also did facilities studies, he said.

Zeigler said DMH/MR wants to use the property in a way that benefits the clients the department serves and also serves the community. Not all beneficial uses are institutional, he said.

As an example, Zeigler said DMH/MR owns MacFarland Mall, a moneymaking retail center in Tuscaloosa with department stores, a movie theater and other shops.

Morgan County lawmakers began getting notices about the meeting late last week. Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, said he believes area officials see the property as a site for "highest-end, high-technology multi-use" industry and businesses with high-salary jobs.

Dukes said area leaders should welcome the results of the study and the chance to start on cohesive planning. Up to now, leaders had interest in planning, but heard different ideas from different special interest groups.

More than three years ago, Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, said he believed the property is a good site for a high-tech training hub

"The possibilities are endless. I see this as a place for high-tech training for all North Alabama, perhaps for the whole state," said Hammon.

The legislator said the 160-acre Wallace site is a logical spot to train people to work in the state's growing number of high-tech industries.

Hammon said the site could incorporate job training as well as industrial sites.

Rep. Ronald Grantland, D-Hartselle, said he would like to see a portion of the property used for a new health department site, but the site is large enough to accommodate high-tech corporations as well.

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