BILLINGS - The leader of the Crow Tribe said Monday the southeastern Montana tribe is considering buying or leasing a long-vacant jail just outside the reservation.
The proposal to take over Hardin's Two Rivers Detention Center remains in the planning stages, but Crow Chairman Cedric Black said talks are under way between the tribe and city representatives.
One potential use for the dormant, 464-bed facility would be to remake it into a drug and alcohol treatment center. Black Eagle said that was just one of several options on the table.
In recent years, the jail has been at the heart of a running feud between Hardin and state corrections officials who say the facility is not needed.
With no inmate contracts despite years of aggressive marketing of the jail, the $27 million economic development project has turned into an embarrassment for rural Hardin - and a potential financial liability.
City officials two years ago rejected an earlier takeover proposal offered by the Crow. The city saw that plan as a stealth attempt to annex part of Hardin, which is about 45 miles east of Billings.
In 2008, the jail went into default on its bond payments. And last year, it was targeted by a California con artist, Michael Hilton, who convinced the city he was backed by investors eager to build a military training facility on the site.
Hilton's scam fell apart amid revelations about his criminal history, and since then the city has been increasingly desperate to find inmates.
Still, relations between Hardin and the neighboring Crow Indian Reservation have long been strained, and the tribe's latest proposal is sure to be treated with wariness.
Black Eagle said the tribe is treading carefully this time around.
"We are evaluating a number of ideas, and we believe the facility has great potential for several different areas that we could utilize," he said. "It will be good for the Crow, it will be good for Hardin of course, and it will be good for Indian Country."
But the head of the economic development agency that built the jail said his agency remains in the dark.
"Two Rivers Authority has not been informed of any effort by the Crow Tribe to purchase the Detention Facility," executive director Jeffrey McDowell said in a statement. "Until Two Rivers Authority has more information, further comment is inappropriate."
Black Eagle declined to say who he has been negotiating with from the town. He said representatives of the U.S. Departments of Justice and Interior also have been involved.