When Chuck Bergensky looks at the grimy sandstone walls of the West Virginia Penitentiary, he sees thousands and thousands of happy shoppers.
"I visualize a very successful outlet shopping mall. I see things like a parking lot for 1,000 cars in the prison yard and 35 or 40 shops inside the walls," the city manager said.And not only that.
"We would keep some of the cellblocks to attract people and maybe put the electric chair on display," he said Friday.
Bergensky and a group of businessmen and others have proposed turning the Civil War-era prison into a mall after it closes in 1992 under court order.
The city is spending about $13,000 for architectural and feasibility studies. If the city and a state-appointed economic development group decide to go ahead with the idea, the prison will be sold or leased to developers for conversion.
The maximum-security penitentiary resembles a medieval fortress, with parapets, gun slots and arches. Its 24-foot walls were quarried with convict labor. Now blackened by pollution, the walls are 7 feet thick at the base and taper to 28 inches at the top.
Stuart Patz, a Vienna, Va., consultant, said preliminary figures indicate the mall could attract busloads of tourists and shoppers from Pittsburgh, about 85 miles to the northeast. He declined to estimate what the project would cost.
"All indications are that the project is feasible," Patz said. He said he expects to complete an analysis of the project by early December.
The prison stands on a 10-acre plot in a residential area in this Ohio River town of 11,000. It still houses the gallows where 85 men were hanged from 1899 to 1949. Nine men died in the prison's electric chair from 1951 to 1959.
In 1973, it was the site of a major riot. In 1979, a police officer and an inmate were killed when 15 inmates escaped. In 1986, three inmates were killed and more than a dozen prison workers taken hostage in a New Year's Day riot.
Underfunding and overcrowding prompted a judge in 1983 to declare prison conditions unconstitutional. In 1988, after millions were spent on improvements, the state Supreme Court ordered the place closed, saying conditions had become too appalling to correct.