The Navy is trying for a third time to enlist the private sector to redevelop the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s shuttered prison, a fortress-like structure that has priceless views of the Atlantic Ocean but needs millions of dollars of repairs after years of neglect.
Dating back 106 years, the prison on Maine’s Seavey Island in the Piscataqua River separating New Hampshire and Maine features medieval architecture with turrets that give it the appearance of a castle overlooking Portsmouth Harbor and the North Atlantic.
The Navy issued a notice announcing the leasing opportunity for up to 50 years for private and public sector developers.
“The Navy is again offering leasing opportunities at the property, and proposals will be evaluated in several areas … including environmental compliance, compatibility with the base’s mission and economic viability,” Tom Kreidel, spokesman for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Virginia, said Tuesday.
More than 80,000 inmates spent time in the prison in Kittery which was known as the Navy Brig before it closed in 1974. Since then, it has fallen into disrepair.
Outside, shrubbery is overgrown and windows are boarded up. Inside, floors are buckled, pipes are broken and electrical fixtures dangle. In addition to overhauling the building, developers would be responsible for costly environmental abatement of asbestos and lead paint.
Some people familiar with the prison remain skeptical about whether it can be redeveloped.
“I think it’s a real long shot because so much work has to be done, but I’d love to see something done with it,” said Peter Bowman, a Kittery resident who served as shipyard commander from 1987 to 1990. “To make it inhabitable requires imagination, technical know-how and, most of all, money,” he added.
The first time the Navy tried to redevelop the prison was in the late 1990s, but that effort to transform the prison into premium office space fell through when New Hampshire developer Joseph Sawtelle died in 2000.
The Navy tried again in 2008 but abandoned the effort in 2009.
“In 2009, we held an open and competitive solicitation process for leasing the brig property and after a thorough review, none of the proposals met the Navy’s criteria,” Kreidel said in a statement.
The Navy said its goal is to establish a long-term business relationship with a partner who will be a steward of the property while maximizing value to the Navy, either through rent, in-kind services or property improvements that save money for the Navy over time.
The Navy would have to approve the type of development since there are security concerns. The prison is located on an active-duty Navy shipyard that overhauls nuclear submarines.
Because of those security issues, businesses that rely on unrestricted public access like movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants or pubs are not permitted. The Navy also specifically ruled out a liquefied natural gas terminal, a casino or another prison.
The structure is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and renovations would have to comply with the federal government’s standards for historic preservation.
The Navy’s public notice was officially posted on Friday. Details will be made available to interested parties at a conference next month.