Such a deal! Celling hotel rooms for only $200 a night in former Vero jail
“Spend a night in PRISON! In Vero Beach,” reads the Airbnb posting. “The establishment is good for couples, solo adventurers, big groups, families (with kids), furry friends (pets allowed).”
For a bargain $200 a night, you can have a “room” with no view, just a slit for a window, with clouded glass so you can’t see out of it. The decor is drab. The yard is fenced, to say the least; designers didn’t skimp on the razor wire. Maximum security is the goal here. Once you’re locked in for the night, you can feel quite secure.
For that price, you could stay in off-season at Ocean Drive hostelry. Or you could spend a night or two at the old Indian River Correctional Institution, closed in a 2012, which has been reimagined by two Fort Lauderdale entrepreneurs as an Airbnb listing-slash-film set, with an algae-growing business on the side.
The listing has been circulating on Facebook for the past two weeks, and has generated some 2,000 views (but so far no bookings), says co-owner Rob Goodman, a former actor now working in film production. He posted the listing in the hopes of attracting filmmakers who might want to use the site as a set.
Goodman’s longtime friend, Geronimo Dimitrelos, also is moving his algae farm to the facility. Algae to Omega Holdings uses a proprietary method to produce algae with high levels of astaxanthin, a powerful anti-oxidant, and essential fatty acids like Omega-3 to use in animal feed and other products.
“I received my patent four months ago,” says Dimitrelos. “There are maybe three companies in the world doing it like me.” Dimitrelos first learned exactly a year ago that his bid of $850,000 had been declared the winner in an auction for the 99-acre compound, a mile south of Oslo Road on 76th Avenue, which sits in the shadow of the county landfill and borders the north-bound lanes of I-95.
Built in 1976 to house close to 400 male “youthful offenders” age 14 to 18, the prison offered vocational classes as well as standard high school courses – former Vero Beach mayor Kevin Sawnick taught there.
When it closed, 160 people lost their jobs, and its inmates were transferred to the state’s only other youthful offender facility 200 miles away.
In addition to the two-story building housing the tiny, two-person cells, there are nine other open dormitory-style buildings that each housed 16 inmates.
With its ubiquitous razor wire, unkempt grounds and peeling paint, the exterior is haunting enough to rival Hitchcock’s Bates Motel. The real fright comes inside the cell block building, where narrow double-bunks border a steel toilet and sink with not so much as a partition for privacy. Turns out, the young inmates only slept there, says Jack Mihalovich, who for a year was senior psychologist at the prison around 2008.
The rest of the time, they were in classes, at meals or in a day room socializing.
Today there isn’t much of the compound that doesn’t seem punishingly bleak.
“The irony isn’t lost on me that people might pay to stay there,” says Mihalovich.
“I put the Airbnb thing up there as a joke but you know what? There are crazy people out there that maybe will do it.”
Prison tourism is not a new concept and it’s been on the rise in the past decade. The defunct Ohio State Reformatory was named in a 2010 USA Today article for hosting weddings, averaging 10 a year; built in 1886, it has considerable more charm that Vero’s prison.
Then again, that may be an asset. Goodman suggests parents visit with their teenagers as a sort of scared-straight approach.
”This is a prison so think camping and bring necessities,” he cautions in the listing. “The whole idea is to have an experience or even show young ones where they DO NOT want to end up.”
Goodman has been approached about using the prison for a big-budget haunted house. He envisions it as the ideal setting for a zombie hunt. At this point, with the grounds still unfamiliar, he has to fight his own imagination when he arrives on the property after dark. “To throw the light switch, there’s a control room I have to climb a ladder to get into. All I’ve got is my little cell phone light,” he says. “It’s scary.”