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Dusk falls at Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. Thursday, April 19, 2012.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa has put a price on Canada's oldest prison, the 177-year-old Kingston Penitentiary that will be closed down in the next two to three years.

The estimated value of its structures and land is being pegged at roughly $17.6-million. But the expensive and complicated nature of maintaining the national historic site means finding a buyer will likely be a challenge.

There have been grand ideas to turn the prison into a museum comparable to Alcatraz. But what draws people to the Pen – its long history of escape attempts and housing notorious prisoners including Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olson – is the same reason it may sit empty.

The site's maintenance costs mean it could sit dormant for years, said Christian Leuprecht, a Kingston politics and economics professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University. "It's tragic but I just don't see alternatives," he said. "There's a reason the federal government is closing it, because it's a money pit."

The government announced its plans to shutdown the Pen last month and says it will save $52-million each year.

Prof. Leuprecht said the Pen's expenses, associated with maintaining multiple heritage designations on various structures at the historic prison, will hinder Ottawa and potential buyers from developing it. It also means the building will likely sell for much less than the government's assessment, Prof. Leuprecht said.

The structures on the 21.9-acre property were assessed to be worth $14.7-million last year, said Jeremy Link, Public Works and Government Services Canada spokesman. That is on top of the value of the land, which was assessed at more than $2.9-million.

"You can value things at whatever you want but in the end, a market is supply and demand. …," Prof. Leuprecht said. "We know that heritage buildings are notoriously depressed of value. The challenge will be, can they actually find someone to take it off their hands?"

Individual heritage designations were placed on three of the prison's workshops, the north lodge, the main cellblock and the towers on the property's corners. The stone structures were designated between the late 1980s and 2002.

Patricia Kell, director of Parks Canada's national historic sites policy branch, said Kingston Pen was a model 19th-century prison and much of the architecture has survived.

"Those are the things that are really of interest when we look at plans for the future of the building," Ms. Kell said. "How can those things remain intact while we find a 21st century role for it?"

Her office oversees designated sites, including the Pen. She said it would be up to the current owner, the Correctional Service of Canada, to decide if they want to sell the building but until then they must maintain its heritage features.

A spokeswoman for corrections said in an e-mail that no decisions have been made yet for the prison or land. It hasn't been determined how much it will cost to maintain the historic site once it has been decommissioned, she said.

Ms. Kell said that turning the prison into a museum would be an expensive project but would fit with making use of the historical features. "Clearly, using it as a museum about [prisons]would be a way to preserve and also to put a public focus on those qualities," she said.

In the past, Parks Canada has partnered with local groups to turn sites into museums, but Ms. Kell said that a time of government cutbacks it seems unlikely.

At the municipal level, Kingston Mayor Mark Gerretsen said he wants the site to be preserved but he's more focused on what the closing means for prison workers. Plus, he said, the city doesn't have the money necessary to take on the prison when it's shut down.

There's nothing to stop the Kingston Penitentiary being left vacant for an extended period of time as long as its protected features are maintained. But Ms. Kell said she hopes it isn't left vacant indefinitely.

"It's always better for a building to have a tenant and indeed to have a use," she said. "That's always a more secure future for a building."

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