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Hickenlooper signs measure to rejuvenate Fort Lyon

May 24, 2013 Updated: May 24, 2013 at 7:10 pm

LAS ANIMAS - On the steps of the historic Fort Lyon Correctional Facility, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 210 Friday to breathe new life into the abandoned campus.

"Thanks to our rural legislators, it is providing a new direction for Fort Lyon and it is fulfilling that promise that we will once again have life in these buildings," Hickenlooper told a crowd gathered to watch the bill signing.

But, for some, the gesture is too little and too late.

Eating lunch at Mexican restaurant in Las Animas - the nearest town to Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado - Frank and Mary Jo Nunley were skeptical and unimpressed by the governor's gesture.

"I was just bewildered with Hickenlooper stepping back into the picture," said Frank Nunley, who was a corrections officer at Fort Lyon until it closed two years ago. "He was telling everybody this facility cost the state too much money to run, OK. Now you're on the other side of the fence and this is a great opportunity?"

Nunley stayed in the area to run a small business, rather than move to a different correctional facility as a guard.

He said he hopes the plan to make Fort Lyon a rehabilitation center for the state's chronically homeless works. But he wonders if it wasn't economical as a prison, why it will work as a treatment center.

Fort Lyon doesn't look like a prison and was operated the longest time - almost a century - as a hospital for veterans suffering from substance abuse and what today is called post traumatic stress disorder.

The 550-acre campus is shaded by rows of cottonwood trees and a slew of buildings, houses and roads make it feel like a small community - now more like a ghost town.

Bent County is a sprawling arid flat land with a strip of fertile green running through it where the Arkansas River snakes its way to Kansas. Cattle ranches and melon farms supplement the economy of the area but losing 300 jobs when the prison closed hurt.

When Lela and Jose Manzanares came to work at Fort Lyon in 1962 from New Mexico, it was a thriving, working community. The retired couple still live just outside the gates of Fort Lyon among a handful of private houses.

"We're happy something is happening," Lela Manzanares said. "At first it was kind of a scary thing."

Both worked in the hospital serving veterans and they are thrilled it will return to that historic purpose of getting homeless people - many of whom are veterans - back on their feet.

The event Friday didn't come without considerable effort.

An original bill to allocate $3.75 million in state funding for the project died in committee, and only became law Friday through clever maneuvering by southeastern Colorado lawmakers who added it onto Senate Bill 210, when that bill was one vote away from the governor's desk.

Fort Lyon is now under the direction of Bent County under a lease from the state, and the homeless services program could open as early as this fall serving up to 60 men.

Over time, the treatment center could expand to 300 clients and include women and potentially families trying to reconnect. The treatment will include job training, agricultural work and access to medical care and housing in a dormitory-style facility.


Contact Megan Schrader


Twitter: @CapitolSchrader

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