SUGAR LAND, Texas -- Empty, quiet and all but abandoned, a unusual artifact of Texas history sits on the edge of Sugar Land: The only prison the state of Texas has ever closed.
Guards who used to walk the halls of the Central Prison Farm – built in 1932 and closed in 2011 -- say the cell blocks are haunted by ghosts of convicts who lived and worked there as prisoners of the past.
"There was a large area around it that was a prison farm," said Jim Callaway, Sugar Land's assistant city manager. "So if you grew up around the area, if you drove through the area, then that's the memory you have."
Now Sugar Land is looking at this peculiar property as a key to its future.
When you think of Sugar Land – a city long known mainly as a suburb of Houston that's now booming in its own right -- you probably don't think of businesses like Tramontina USA, the nation's largest maker of cookware. But in a 750,000 square foot complex of industrial buildings, workers on assembly lines produce about 30,000 pots, pans and other cookware items every day.
"It's remarkable," said Chuck Silverman, the general counsel of Tramontina USA. "People really don't understand what happens here in Sugar Land. And they don't understand that all this manufacturing occurs just right down the street."
About 700 people work at the facility, earning paychecks performing the sort of light manufacturing jobs any community would covet. But as it tries to lure more companies like Tramontina, Sugar Land has a problem: Its industrial park is running out of space.
"We are starting to see where we get leads on major business relocations and everything that we do not have the acreage right now in the existing business park to even pursue those prospects," said Jennifer May, the city's interim director of economic development.
So to keep the city's manufacturing base growing, Sugar Land officials are looking toward the prison they lobbied state officials to close just a few years ago. The city is looking for a developer interested in helping build an industrial park on the 230-acre site.
"It is a former prison site, but with its great access to the airport and potentially to the Union Pacific rail line right there, we think it would be a great second business park for the City of Sugar Land," May said.
City officials said they're acquiring the land not only for an industrial park, but also for a public safety training facility and improvements for the adjacent Sugar Land Regional Airport. They're especially interested in developing the land with an eye toward aviation businesses.
They're not sure how much the city will have to spend buying the property from the state government, but officials said negotiations are now underway.