The state's only private prison sits in barbed-wire-enclosed isolation on the edge of Appleton. The Prairie Correctional Facility has been empty for about five years now.
Residents hope to convince the state to lease space in the closed compound in western Minnesota, arguing that reopening the facility would bring hundreds of jobs to the region and help the state reduce prison overcrowding.
State officials, however, don't like the idea of for-profit prisons.
Whether Appleton gets those prison jobs back may hinge on which is the less unpopular of two options: spending more than $140 million taxpayer dollars to build prison cells, or helping the bottom line of the nation's largest private prison corporation.
Prairie Correctional opened more than 20 years ago but closed in 2010 for lack of paying customers. The owner, Corrections Corporation of America, couldn't find any state or federal institutions willing to send inmates to the prison.
"It seems to be a constant question of the folks in town: What's the prison doing? When's the prison going to open up? When are we going to see the folks that did have to move away possibly come back?" said Appleton Mayor Chad Syltie.
Reopening the 1,600 bed facility would help reduce a county unemployment rate that's averaging over 6 percent this year, well above the statewide average of nearly 4 percent.
"It would bring about 300 employees if it was to get up to full staff," said Syltie. "This would be a nice lift to the area if we were able to get this facility leased out to the state of Minnesota."
When it was open, the economic benefits of the Prairie Correctional Facility were broad, said Tim Dittes, who owns a grocery store in town.
"Oh, it'd be great to see it reopen," said Dittes. "It'd be great for the economy, great for the community, and it'd bring people back in. And it helps all the businesses."
There's hope now in Appleton that the shortage of prison cells in Minnesota could make that happen. Right now inmates outnumber beds by more than 500 across the state. Minnesota contracts with county jails to house the overflow.
The state would like to consolidate those inmates in one facility and Appleton is a possibility. But for that to happen again, some key players in state government would have to change their minds about private prisons like the one in Appleton. That remains a hard sell.
State corrections commissioner Tom Roy says private prisons often fall short of delivering good service. Critics have charged things like rehabilitative programs and health care aren't adequate.
"I have said very publicly, as has the governor, that the support of private prisons is not on our agenda," said Roy.
Despite those reservations, the state is talking with Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America. With 70,000 inmates behind bars, the company bills itself as the nation's fifth largest prison system, behind only the federal government and three state operations.
The company has told Minnesota officials the Appleton prison is available, CCA public affairs director Jonathan Burns said.
"The arrangement we're discussing is one in which the facility would be managed and operated by the state, and staffed by state employees," said Burns.
At this point, it looks like an uphill climb.
The Appleton prison is not the state's first choice. Roy instead wants the Legislature to approve spending more than $140 million to expand the state's capacity by nearly 600 beds. That would pay for about two decades of leasing Appleton, according to figures cited by a company lobbyist.
Roy isn't ruling out Appleton, but says he doesn't like the basic principle private prisons are built on. "The notion of incarceration for profit," he said, "I don't think is very popular in this state."