Paso Robles leaders push to acquire, repurpose youth facility

The parking lot of the now-vacant El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility on Airport Drive. The site has remained vacant since 2008, when it was closed by the state.
The parking lot of the now-vacant El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility on Airport Drive. The site has remained vacant since 2008, when it was closed by the state. Tribune file photo

Paso Robles city officials are floating a new plan to repurpose the former youth correctional facility that’s been vacant for almost a decade.

Mayor Steve Martin and Councilman Steve Gregory are leading a group of San Luis Obispo County nonprofit groups in pushing for Paso Robles to acquire the 155-acre site, formerly known as El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility, from the state. They then want the city to convert the facility into homeless transitional and farmworker housing, educational and sports facilities, commercial developments, an ethanol production plant and a solar power installation.

The site, located near the corner of Airport and Dry Creek roads, has remained vacant since the state closed the California Youth Authority facility in 2008 because of budget cuts, a declining inmate population and changes in youth correctional policy. State officials initially intended to convert the facility, also known as the boys’ school and the Estrella Correctional Facility, into an adult prison, re-entry site and fire camp where prisoners could be trained as firefighters.

But budget shifts and prison realignment efforts, which sent some inmates to jail instead of prison, caused those plans to fall through. In 2013, a charter school expressed interest in the site, and, in 2016, a group of San Luis Obispo County mayors sent a letter to the state with hopes of converting the facility to a homeless center.

Martin said he thinks the city’s plan could succeed because the site’s proposed uses are in line with state goals to help people who are homeless, provide housing for farmworkers and preserve the environment. Plus, the state has been paying at least $700,000 per year to maintain the empty facility, an expense officials would probably prefer to take off their books, Martin said.

“This is something that ... would help everything the state is trying to do anyway,” he said.

Martin said the 2016 proposal didn’t get very far because Cal Fire, which operates a substation on 16 acres at the site, had previously expressed interest in expanding.

Scott Jalbert, chief of Cal Fire San Luis Obispo, said the agency had been interested in starting a firefighter training camp there but the plan has been scrapped.

Since then, Jalbert said he had been working with the city and the state to figure out a plan for the site. He said Cal Fire may end up expanding slightly, in order to allow fire crews throughout the state to mobilize near Highways 46 and 101. But that wouldn’t affect the city’s plans, he said.

“It’s a shame that facility’s just sitting there rotting when it could be put to good use,” Jalbert said.

The city’s plan would require the state to list the land as surplus and sell it to a local entity, such as Paso Robles or the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District.

Martin said he thinks the state could be compelled to charge a token amount — less than market rate — because the site will be used to serve the public interest. Because the city and the school district — which has expressed interest in using portions of the site — are public agencies, they could receive the land, Martin said.

The state can’t give the land to a private entity because that would be considered an illegal gift of public funds. A private company or organization would be required to purchase the property for at least market rate if it were put up for sale. However, if a public agency plans to use the land to serve the public, the state is allowed to sell it for less than its market value.

Once the city or local entity takes possession of the property, the various partner businesses, nonprofit groups and agencies would foot the bill for revamping and maintaining their parts of the site, Martin said.

John Peschong, the newly elected District 1 representative on the county Board of Supervisors, said he supports the project, especially the school district’s proposed involvement.

Peschong wants to make sure Cal Fire can still operate from that location, and he said it will be important moving forward to get community input on planned uses.

“I think the goal is to get it to an entity that will use it to its capacity,” he said.

Martin and Gregory will present their ideas to other Paso Robles council members Tuesday. With council authorization, staff will then draw up official planning documents.

Martin said he and city representatives plan to meet with state officials Wednesday during a League of California Cities meeting in Sacramento.

State Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who represents the 35th District, said his staff is researching the project, which he thinks could have bipartisan support. He said he’s not aware of any plans the state has for the facility or land and said he would do what he could on his end to help move the project along.

“I think it’s feasible,” Cunningham said. “I’m cautiously optimistic we can work that out.”

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27