Morgan Co. executive has grand plan for Brushy Mountain

Morgan Co. executive has grand plan for Brushy Mountain

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By WHITNEY HOLMES
6 News Anchor/Reporter

PETROS (WATE) -- Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and Morgan County are almost synonymous.

The prison has been there for more than 100 years, but this summer it shut its doors for good.

Now, the massive, historic complex sits unused and in jeopardy.

Brushy Mountain looks like a fortress nestled in the mountains of Morgan County. The penitentiary used to house hundreds of criminals and provide hundreds of jobs.

Morgan County Executive Becky Ruppe says she hopes it won't be vacant for long.

"I could sit in my office and do a lot less work if I didn't have to worry about this project," she says. "But if I walk away from this, generations to come will be very regretful that I did that."

Ruppe is devising a two part plan that would turn the old prison back into an economic engine.

The first phase takes the section that held the worst criminals back to its roots by turning it into a regional jail.

"We are currently overcrowded in our jail and a lot of the surrounding counties have built new jails that have already been filled to capacity," Ruppe says.

The revenue generated from turning the 96 bed maximum security prison into a 144 bed regional jail would then go to fund the tourism part of the plan. That's phase two.

"The great thing about tourists is that they come here and spend their money and they leave," Ruppe says.

"They don't have children in schools. They don't use your jails. They don't use your medical facilities. They just leave you their money and we can use that money for our own services," she adds.

The county executive has lots of ideas to attract tourists and their wallets. "On these grounds, I can envision all types of things from a bed and breakfast, visitors' center or a hotel. I think the potential here is endless."

One of the more popular ideas is turning the main building into a museum that showcases famous inmates like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s killer, James Earl Ray, and horror stories only former employees can tell.

"There's a lot of stories to tell. It was very often there was as murder at Brushy Mountain and that doesn't happen today and hasn't happened here for several years," Ruppe says.

Her plans will be expensive and she'll need scores of grant money to get it going, but she's confident she'll get the support.

In fact, Morgan County Commission voted unanimously in support of re-using Brushy Mountain. Since the prison has been part of county history for five generations, most people want it saved.

"It's always been part of us since 1896 and I think if we can do some things with it, it can create economic development for another century," Ruppe says..

Gov. Phil Bredesen told Ruppe it's likely she'll get money for the feasibility study for the regional jail.

The rest, she's got to get on her own. Ruppe says she's already raised $9 million in grants for other county projects, so she's confident she'll get support for this plan.

She says without grant money, her project is doomed.

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