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Commercial Real Estate
Business Observer Wednesday, Apr. 28, 2021 5 months ago

Entrepreneurs repurpose former state prison

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A group of partners have created a law enforcement, military and civilian training destination at an unlikely site: the old Hendry Correctional Institute.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

It has everything. Barracks, kitchens, classrooms, lounge areas, a medical building and more than 1,200 acres of property. What more could you ask for in a former maximum-security prison?

This place — what was once the Hendry Correctional Institute — offers so much that a group of businessmen have breathed new life into it. They've opened a training complex for military, law enforcement and civilians on the site in the Hendy County, just east of the Collier County town of Immokalee. They’ve formed three businesses based there: Tradecraft Range and Training Center, Force Center, and Force IMI.

Amid the pandemic, they’ve had to get creative with marketing, including bringing in new types of clients, but they have big plans for the property and are rehabbing it bit by bit. One key? Focus on the rehab projects that will have the most immediate impact on revenue.  

After the prison closed around 2012, the state sold the property to a real estate investor. The property is now owned by Naples investors Richard Mitchell and Robert White, under the LLC South Florida Ops, according to Hendry County Property records. 

Courtesy. Ryan Hillaker, partner and president of Tradecraft Range and Training Center and director of business development of Force Center, is one of five partners with mutual ownership of the businesses at the site.

Ryan Hillaker, partner and president of Tradecraft Range and Training Center and director of business development of Force Center, says Tradecraft Range and Training Center opened on the property in April 2019. “My goal there was to create a shooting range for more experienced shooters,” says Hillaker, who served in the Marines and worked in defense logistics.

Hillaker and a partner formed another partnership with Force Center, which opened on the property March 1, 2020 — right before pandemic-related shutdowns began. Force Center provides training for law enforcement, military and other government entities. The third entity, Force IMI, is the internal training division. Now there are five partners with mutual ownership of the businesses, all leasing the property from the owner.

For Force Center, a large portion of expected revenue was based on military and law enforcement training. The pandemic changed things. “Much of that training was put on a moratorium,” Hillaker says. Law enforcement budgets shifted to operations, and there were obvious concerns about groups staying in open accommodations at the facility. Demand for law enforcement training is just starting to come back, he says.  

Yet on the civilian side, the venture is over-performing. Many indoor shooting ranges closed during portions of the pandemic, and people looked for new places to go, discovering Tradecraft. In recent months, firearm sales have increased along with demand for training.

This summer, a law enforcement demo day helped them show off the facility, which can be used for a variety of trainings, from active shooter scenarios to precision rifle marksmanship to workplace violence. Clients have also come from searches on Google, Tripadvisor and word of mouth. They had planned to promote the facility at outdoor events, such as car shows and golf tournaments, where people could have a co-interest in firearms. But the pandemic foiled those plans. “It’s caused us to have to be really creative and proactive,” Hillaker says.

‘It would be $50-plus million to recreate what we have on a flat piece of land. It’s sound construction. Concrete and steel last a long time. We really have the skeleton of what we need there.’ Ryan Hillaker, Force Center and Tradecraft Range and Training Center

The creative approach has included calling real estate offices to promote their agent safety program and playing host to games, such as airsoft, a shooting game that uses plastic projectiles. Hillaker says laser tag and airsoft weren’t on their radar before, but they’ve brought in additional revenue. They provided a good business lesson, too: be open to new revenue streams and be unencumbered by the original strategy.

The team has also been busy assessing the massive site’s renovation needs. There’s damage from hurricanes along with leaky roofs. Hillaker says there are about 40 buildings on the property in various states of rehab plus lots of open space. The footprint is about 2 miles long and a quarter-mile wide. Buildings include four barracks, each housing about 50 people. “We’ve rehabbed one,” Hillaker says. “We have capacity to sleep a small military unit or large law enforcement unit and keep them on property.”

Courtesy. A group of businessmen have breathed new life into what was once the Hendry Correctional Institute, opening a training complex for military, law enforcement and civilians on the site in Immokalee.

For now, the plan is to determine what projects can be monetized most quickly and make the improvements that will lead to more business. “You just have to pick and choose,” Hillaker says. “You could drop millions and millions with a blink of an eye.”

The partners have been conservative about investing in the property, he says, because they don’t know how long revenue will be impacted by the pandemic, but they’ve already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars. After the summer, Hillaker hopes law enforcement and military training will get back on pace and that the projected budget will move closer to $1 million.

Next on the list is fixing up the property’s kitchens, so they can host 50-100 people on site and not have to bring in catering. They also plan to add more classrooms. “The property is slowly but surely being brought up to better standards,” he says.

Starting with the infrastructure of a former prison has been a major benefit. “It would be $50-plus million to recreate what we have on a flat piece of land,” Hillaker says. “It’s sound construction. Concrete and steel last a long time. We really have the skeleton of what we need there.”

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