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

The shuttering of Canada's oldest prison has opened up the possibility of turning the Kingston institution into a tourist destination comparable to Alcatraz.

The federal government announced the cost-saving measure of closing the aging Kingston Penitentiary last week. The shutdown will begin next year and will be complete by 2014-15.

The maximum-security institution, on the shores of Lake Ontario, a short drive from downtown, has housed the likes of Paul Bernardo, Russell Williams and Clifford Olson. Notorious inmates, riots and daring escapes have dominated public attention throughout the Pen's 177-year history in Kingston – but it has also been a steady source of hundreds of jobs for the community.

Once the fortress closes, it could bring something else to Kingston, if there's support and funding to ensure it isn't left dormant.

"People have a fascination with the correctional system.… people visit Kingston just to drive by the institutions, so I think there's a tremendous opportunity there," said Jeff Garrah, CEO of the Kingston Economic Development Corporation.

Mr. Garrah has looked at public-private business plans of prisons turned museums, including Alcatraz, and thinks something similar is possible for Kingston Pen. Years ago, he visited the San Francisco island penitentiary, which had its own infamous inmates including Al Capone. Alcatraz opened as a tourist destination in 1973 and each years gets about 1.3 million visitors, who can tour cells while listening to recorded narration by former inmates and staff.

Mr. Garrah said he was struck by the similarities between the American institution and the one in his hometown, which sits between the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour and one of the city's most affluent neighbourhoods. "I think it could be a great draw for tourism," Mr. Garrah said, "but I also think it respects the history of the heritage that Kingston has with the correctional services."

He said it's too soon to estimate costs and how many tourists such a development could draw to Kingston. The existing, small museum that runs out of the old warden's residence that overlooks the Pen already gets upwards of 25,000 visitors each year.

Kingston Mayor Mark Gerretsen, however, said he's focused not on the building itself but on the fate of 450 employees, who may be able to transfer to nearby prisons. He said he doesn't have an estimate of how much it would cost to buy the property from the federal government. Public Works and Government Services, which handles sales of federal property, did not respond to a request for an estimate.

But the property's value has been assessed at $20.76-million by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, said Martin Skolnick, associate broker and vice-president of real estate firm DTZ Barnicke for Eastern Ontario. However, Mr. Skolnick, who has worked on government divestitures before, said the market value is likely lower – somewhere between $5-million and $7-million – because of the cost attached to taking on the historic site. "The cost of doing something with these buildings can be huge," he said.

A spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said no decisions have been made about future plans for the land and building, which is protected by its designation as a federal historic site.

Mr. Garrah said part of the vast property could potentially be used as office space. But whatever happens to the site, it likely won't happen for years after the inmates leave.

The nearby Prison for Women was sold four years ago to Queen's University to use for storage, a process that took close to seven years, he said. Local media reported it sold for about $2.9-million.

The challenge with the Pen will be coming up with the money to buy and maintain the aged property, which will be complicated by its designation as a heritage site, said Christian Leuprecht, a Queen's University politics professor. He said turning it into a public museum would probably need funding from all levels of government, something that's not likely during government cutbacks.

He wouldn't be surprised if it sits empty, he said, but there should be talks about how to avoid that. "We should have a national discussion about what happens with this type of a site," he said. "It's in the national interest to remember what happened here. In part because it sort of portrays the way justice has evolved over the last 177 years."

Peter Hennessy, author of Canada's Big House: The Dark History of the Kingston Penitentiary, spent most weekdays at the prison for a stretch of six years during the 1990s when he sat on the citizens' advisory committee. He said he considers Alcatraz a model of what could be done in Kingston.

"Imagine staying in the cell of Red Ryan, where he escaped from," Mr. Hennessy said, referring to the convicted bank robber who escaped in 1923 and wasn't found for three months.

When Tom Epp was warden of the prison, between 1989 and 1992, there were no major emergencies like riots, hostage takings or runaways. But when there were rumours about weapon smuggling or escapes, he had to quickly shut down the prison to search.

"Everybody knows this who works in the place, you can never really let your guard down because you never know when something will go wrong," he said. "But … a lot of days, you're just in this sort of ... ritual of locking, unlocking, counting, searching."

While Mr. Epp was in charge, there was a major retrofit, which he said seemed odd because the prison was hopelessly outdated even then. Having opened in 1835 when prisoners lived under a rigid rule of silence, the Pen was set up for now obsolete practices including a version of water torture and feeding prisoners diets of bread and water.

But all of the Pen's history, good and bad, needs to be preserved somehow, Mr. Epp said, and that could be by turning it into Canada's Alcatraz. "Whether people like prisons or not, or like the whole notion of crime and punishment, that's a historical fact and you don't deny that," he said. "We shouldn't be ashamed of our history."