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institutional property

Pedestrians walk past the outer walls of the recently closed Kingston Penitentiary on Oct. 2. About two dozen people entered its imposing limestone confines – the first in a series of tour groups allowed inside since the last prisoners were moved out.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

As the last few inmates were transferred from the recently closed Kingston Penitentiary, former warden Monty Bourke had mixed emotions. While he laments the closure of his long-time workplace – an institution that "touches all corners of Canadian history" – he's also brimming with excitement.

Mr. Bourke envisions a new future for the property, 12 acres that sit prominently on the shores of Lake Ontario, on valuable waterfront real estate just minutes from the city's downtown core.

Mr. Bourke, now retired after a career that included a five-year stint at Kingston Pen's helm, is best known these days as president of Friends of the Penitentiary Museum, a non-profit group that manages the Correctional Service of Canada Museum.

The museum is one of Kingston's most popular attractions, second only to Fort Henry. Situated in a former warden's residence across the street from the prison, it's home to an impressive collection of memorabilia – uniforms, archaic punishment devices, confiscated weapons and the like.

"I'm stepping out on a limb," Mr. Bourke says, "but I think it's the largest collection in the world." The collection is so big that the Victorian house can display only a fraction of it. Mr. Bourke's group wants to expand the museum to incorporate the vacant prison.

Converting an old prison into a museum is hardly a new idea. It's been done, most famously at Alcatraz near San Francisco. Some have even taken to calling the Friends' proposal "Alcatraz North." Mr. Bourke, however, prefers to draw his inspiration from further away. The Melbourne Gaol, a decommissioned Australian prison and Kingston Pen lookalike, closed in 1929 and reopened in 1973. Most of the property is owned by the Melbourne Institute of Technology and the Australian government. However the prison's entrance and the cell block are now a museum.

What impresses Mr. Bourke is how the museum makes the most of its small space. "They have almost no artifacts," he says, "so they focus on the experience." Visitors are tried and convicted at the nearby courthouse, then processed as offenders and locked in a cell where they learn about the prison's history through holographic exhibits.

"The point is to preserve history," Mr. Bourke says, "to tell what it was like, both the humanity and the inhumanity." The experiential model has proven effective at telling that story in Melbourne and in other prison museums Mr. Bourke has visited. He believes it's the key to attracting visitors. "People don't want to look at static displays and plaques any more," he says. "They want to play and be engaged."

An experiential museum would likely find a receptive audience in Kingston, Mr. Bourke says, because its history is so intertwined with the city's. He estimates that eight generations of Kingstonians have worked at the prison since it opened in 1835. And its prominent location has made it a curiosity among those without a direct connection.

Some numbers support Mr. Bourke's optimism. When the British Columbia Penitentiary closed in 1980, it drew approximately 80,000 visitors in one week. Forty years after opening as a museum, the Melbourne Gaol still averages 176,000 annual visitors, and Alcatraz, which also opened in 1973 as a museum, draws 1.3 million annually.

Those who think Kingstonians are above such touristy behaviour need only look at this month's United Way fundraiser. After the inmates were transferred but before the doors closed for good, Corrections Canada agreed to open the prison to the public and turn proceeds over to the charity – 9,000 tickets sold out in a couple of hours.

"It was an eye-opener," says Lisa Ray, a local radio announcer and lifelong Kingstonian, who toured the premises last week. "The penitentiary is such a big piece of our identity, yet unless you worked there, you'd never know what went on inside those walls. It would be a shame not to expand the museum there."

Corrections Canada "has yet to make a decision" about what to do with the property, says senior spokeswoman Christa McGregor. The lengthy decommissioning process has just begun, and will likely continue until sometime in 2015. The final decision will have to wait at least that long.

Of course that hasn't stopped local groups from making plans. Those who are keeping an eye on the situation believe that Corrections essentially has three options: Keep the property and repurpose it; sell it to another government agency; or divest outright. Mr. Bourke says the Friends hope to be involved no matter which option Corrections pursues. Their current leasing agreement is in effect until 2018. If Corrections retains the property, Mr. Bourke is confident they can extend the deal to include the prison. If they sell, he hopes to retain the current agreement with the museum and negotiate a new one with the prison's new owners.

But would a new owner be receptive? Martin Skolnick, a commercial realtor and broker with DTZ Eastern Ontario Ltd., says it's certainly possible. "This isn't a typical waterfront property," he says. "The penitentiary would be a stumbling block for a developer who might be interested in building residential units."

The problem is that the prison is a national historic site and many of the buildings are functionally obsolete, making renovation both costly and complicated. Still, Mr. Skolnick sees an opportunity for a mixed-use development that could include a recently proposed international training centre for sailors and – possibly – new space for the museum. "It's an opportunity to do something world class," he says.

Now all eyes are on Corrections Canada. While the Friends continue to explore their options, Mr. Bourke hopes that he can step through Kingston Pen's doors again, not as its warden, but as a visitor to Kingston's most eagerly awaited tourist attraction.

Penitentiary facts

179: Age of penitentiary

Nine: Acres within the walls

12: Total acres including the surrounding waterfront

100: Acres of the original property

1,000: British pounds paid for original property

26,000: Number of annual visitors to the Correctional Services Museum